Hungry Tiger/ Encounter between India and Central Europe: The Case of Hungarian and Bengali Literary Cultures by Imre Bangha. Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, pp. 344. ISBN: 81-260-2583-2
It is now recognized that one of the fallouts of the Saidian conceptualization of ‘Orientalism’ has been a decline in the study of Oriental languages and literatures in Western universities. This is not surprising. Why would young men and women spend seven, eight, nine crucial years of their lives acquiring skills in a foreign language, if it earns them the stigma of being collaborators in an imperialist project? The decline of Arabic in American universities has apparently been particularly noticeable. One could guess the situation when the Iraq war began and media coverage indicated that American soldiers were going to the battlefield without interpreters who could interpret for them. In one incident American soldiers at a checkpoint fired on a vehicle with women and children because none of them knew how to shout ‘Stop!’ in Arabic.
Fortunately for us, the world, though supposedly shrunk into a global village, still has pockets and reservoirs that resist hegemonic conceptualizations. The life and work of the young Hungarian scholar Dr Imre Bangha constitute a shining example of such resistance. I remember vividly my first meeting with him in Santiniketan in the 90s. The image I retain is that of a young man full of curiosity, generosity of spirit, and human warmth, who expected to be accepted as a friend straight away, no more, no less. I am happy to put it on record that we have never fallen out, and let me from now on refer to him as Imre – I shall feel much more comfortable if I call him that.
Imre was born in Győr, Hungary, and obtained his MA in Indology and Hungarian from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. He subsequently gained a doctorate in Hindi from Visva-Bharati University and has since then been a Lecturer in Hindi on a part-time basis at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. For some time now he has been dividing his time between Oxford and Miercurea in northern Romania, where he has an attachment at the Sapientia–Hungarian University of Transylvania. His knowledge of languages is mind-boggling. Unlike most other foreign scholars who write on Indian subjects, he wrote his doctoral dissertation at Visva-Bharati in Hindi itself: Ānandghan ke kabittő me upamāmūlak alamkārő kī yojnā (Simile-based figures of speech in Anandghan’s quatrains). In addition to Modern Standard Hindi, he knows the Braj dialect and has a basic knowledge of the Rajasthani and Avadhi dialects as well. Not only does he have a formidable list of publications in Hungarian, Hindi, and English, but he also has skills in Sanskrit, Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Italian, French, and Spanish, and in addition some basic knowledge of German, Latin, Oriya, Persian, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, and Telugu! In other words, in the Saidian scheme of things, he is poised to take over the world, yet as far as I know, his extraordinary gift in languages is not in the service of any secret Central European plot to dominate either the Orient or the world at large.
Hungry Tiger is a book for which some of us have been waiting for a long time. It was held up in the press because of the inability of the printers to insert the right diacritical marks in Hungarian names and terms; I am so very glad that I was able to intervene and end the deadlock, and Sahitya Akademi allowed Imre to insert the marks himself. Because of the book’s prolonged gestation it has the distinction of having three titles: one on the cover, a slightly different one on the title-page, and surprisingly, yet another one on the reverse of the title-page. The one I have used at the head of this article is the one on the cover, which reflects the author’s final decision. Regrettably, Sahitya Akademi did not execute the change on the title-page, and as for the third variant on the reverse of the title-page, I have no idea how the publisher managed that! But anyway I am happy that the book is finally out, even if it has three identities.
“I started to write this book,” says Imre, “while a student in Budapest and my original motivation was a fascination for literary interaction between two impossibly distant cultures. I hope something of this original fascination can be retained when surveying the richness and diversity of representation. In many cases the facts can speak for themselves better than any theory about them.” Fascination is indeed the key word, and fortunately it does triumph in this book: the wealth of material garnered, with all its inherent complexities and inevitable contradictions, not only speaks more eloquently than any theory ever could, but also tells us that perhaps in the end no two cultures can ever be “impossibly distant”. This humanistic vision is for me a special strength of this book.
The paradoxes of the encounter are chalked by the author in his first chapter, ‘Literary Contacts through the Ages’, and these have been picked up by Dr Martin Kämpchen who has written a Foreword. I was a little puzzled when I read the opening words in the Foreword: “Bengal and Hungary – what could possibly be the connection between Bengal’s culture and the culture of this small and seemingly insignificant European country? Where is Hungary anyway? Even if an educated Indian were asked these questions during a quiz, many of them would probably produce a blank.” Martin – as he is a friend of both Imre and myself, I hope I am allowed to call him by his first name too – then goes on to make up a list of possible connections between the two regions that a well-informed Indian intellectual might be aware of. Actually, I would have thought the list was pretty good, indicating a high level of awareness! Two other countries of the world, picked up at random, might not generate an equally interesting list! I then found the origin of what Martin is saying in the following words of Imre in his first chapter:
“Bengal and Hungary are two places between which until recently there has been virtually no direct economic or political contact. Many people in one place do not even know where the other is. Whenever I am in Calcutta or elsewhere in Bengal people are keen on asking me where I am from. The name of Hungary – besides being understood as ‘hungry’ – does not ring a bell for most of those who question me. If it does, then it is football .... In turn, for many Hungarians, the name of Bengal represents nothing more than the Bengal tiger.”
Well, another German friend (a noted literary translator named Dr Joachim Utz) once told me that even in his country, famous for its Oriental scholarship, to ordinary folk Bengal meant, first and foremost, the Royal Bengal Tiger; so Hungarians needn’t blush because of the lack of information in members of their ‘Lumpenproletariat’. I once met a young Hungarian woman, roughly of Imre’s generation, who had never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. For me that indicated a serious hiatus in her school education and general knowledge. The young lady’s mother, who was of my generation, was visibly embarrassed by her daughter’s ignorance and immediately tried to tell her daughter in a hushed voice that Mahatma Gandhi was indeed an important man of the twentieth century. I feel similarly embarrassed by those Bengalis who have never heard of Hungary and confuse the name with the word ‘hungry’! Since then I have had some e-mail conversation with Imre about these points, which throws further light on the complexities of human perception.
Could Hungary be called a “small and seemingly insignificant European country?” In his first chapter Imre calls it “a small country: its area ... more or less equivalent to that of the state of West Bengal”. So it is small in size compared to other sovereign nations in Europe, but just as West Bengal is significant enough to some of us, so must Hungary be to Hungarians. Looking at the map of Europe, we find other countries which are smaller, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, or Slovenia, each region significant to its inhabitants. Imre points out to me that I have travelled and know a lot about the geography of Europe, whereas in India most of the educated people he meets do not seem to know much about Hungary and come up with the joke about “hungry”; to them he is just “an angrez”. I feel even more embarrassed when I learn this, because more than anything this suggests an identification by skin-colour. Are all white people simply “angrez” to some Indians? Shall I take some paltry, parochial consolation in the fact that those who regard him as “an angrez” cannot be Bengali-speakers?
But it is not that I know of Hungary because I have travelled in Europe and thus know about its geography! My truth (and pride!) is that I have been aware of Hungary since my childhood in Bengal – first because I was born in the war years and my mother used to explain that distant war to me with the help of a map of Europe spread on the dining-table, on which I used to lean with great wonderment, and secondly because geography was an important subject at my school and was very well taught. Indeed, in my school years I had even heard of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had existed once but didn’t in my time. So perhaps I just happened to have attended a school that was academically excellent? But I also knew, since my childhood, of the half-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil and the Hungarian woman named Eta Ghose who had married a Bengali, and these bits of information were obtained not through school but through totally different artistic and literary networks.
Above all, I was aware of Hungary because of the Tagore nexus. I had stared long enough at the hand-written title-page of Lekhan, signed “Srirabindranaththakur/ Budapest/ 26 Kartik/ 1333”, and his prefatory words to that collection, dated “Nov. 7. 1926/ Balatonfüred, Hungary”. Long before I read Rani Mahalanobis’s account of her travels in Hungary with Tagore, I was aware of Tagore having planted a tree there, by Lake Balaton, and thus of the Hungarian connection as part of my Tagorean heritage. The other point I have been aware of at least since my twenties is that Hungarian names of persons and places were important in the mental map of a major Bengali lexicographer working before the Second World War, and I am delighted to find that Imre also refers to him in his first chapter: none other than Jnanendramohan Das, whose dictionary is indispensable to those of us who write in Bengali. As Imre correctly infers, the large number of Hungarian names listed in Das’s Appendix of foreign names, with guidelines on pronunciation, indicates the importance of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in Europe before the First World War.
Alexander Csoma de Kőrös's tomb
and inscription on the tombstone
Since my student days the other, more personal factors in my awareness of Hungary were first, my love of gipsy music, of which I knew Hungary was one of the notable homes, and secondly, my study of philology at college, through which I knew that Hungarian was not a member of the Indo-European family of languages, but of the mysterious Finno-Ugric family. Later, when doing my doctoral researches, I heard about that intrepid Hungarian traveller and scholar, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, who lies buried in the outskirts of Darjeeling. Later still, when working on Tagore and Victoria Ocampo, I found out about the Hungarian artists, mother and daughter, Elizabeth Sass-Brunner and Elizabeth Brunner, who came to visit Tagore in Santiniketan. And finally I take pride in being the first Bengali to read the English translation of that Hungarian best-seller, Rózsa Hajnóczy’s The Fire of Bengal, when it was still in typescript form! The Hungarians cited above and many more colourful personalities enrich Imre’s survey of the Hungarian-Bengali contacts in the past two centuries.
This question of how much the general public of one country happens to know about another has set me thinking deeply about this whole business of the acquisition of mutual knowledge. Let me set some of these thoughts down here, as I think they are quite contextual. So much depends, really, on the educational philosophies of different countries. I consider myself lucky that my schooling happened in the years immediately after India’s independence, when, by way of a post-imperial legacy, an enormous emphasis was put on ‘knowing the world’. The thinking went somewhat like this: every little mole or vole knows his little hole, but as we are human, we have to know the whole world, its far horizons and oceans, and the distant stars. In my school the serious study of ‘the world’ began in high school geography. With an exemplary dedication our Malayali Christian geography teacher started us off with South America, the continent she imagined to be the furthest from us physically and mentally. To her the goal of education was precisely the mastery of terras incognitas. Exposure to such thinking in one’s formative years shapes one for a lifetime. There was no way that I could come away from Miss Varkey’s lessons not knowing where Hungary was! Ever since those days I have known that the capital of Hungary is made up of two cities, Buda and Pest, with the mighty Danube flowing between them. Indeed, the Danube became my favourite European river, and I used to love tracing its magnificent curves in map-drawing classes. In the end, live connections between different countries or cultures are made by a special set of people, who can act as messengers, intermediaries or bridge-builders. Born in Hungary and writing his doctoral thesis in Hindi, Imre himself is clearly one such person. Martin Kämpchen, the German scholar with a base in Santiniketan, is another such person. Likewise, though I have never actually set my foot on Hungarian soil, I love Hungarian music, Hungarian goulash with lots of paprika, and the poetry of Miklós Radnóty when I can get hold of it in translation. So perhaps I am also one of those people specially interested in making and understanding human connections, which is why Hungry Tiger is just the kind of book which speaks to me and delights me.
I therefore agree with Imre when he says: “Many theoreticians interpret the exploration of the world in its diversity as a struggle for power. For me it was enough to see my nine-month old son’s delight in exploring every nook of any room or kitchen to be reminded how limited this approach was.” Wisely, he tries to avoid seeing literary productions and receptions in terms of just power-struggles. Not that he is unaware of the fact that the material he has assembled can indeed be read “in the light of the post-colonial theories”, yet he reminds us that Hungary was not one of the colonizing, maritime powers of Europe. “On the contrary, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it almost functioned as a Hapsburg colony.” Hungarian readers would therefore often feel greater sympathy for the Indian struggle for freedom from colonial rule than with the colonial rulers. The search for Hungarian roots in the East lent extra strength to that sympathy. It was only about 1100 years ago that the Magyar people settled in the territory that has become known as Hungary. They did integrate into Christian Europe, but nevertheless “they have always been conscious of their eastern roots”.
There are indeed some interesting parallels between the Bengalis and the Hungarians in the way their histories have unfolded, and Imre himself as well as Martin in his Foreword foreground them. Both the linguistic-literary traditions are about a thousand years old. I confess that I was puzzled when I read the following sentence in the Foreword: “Their respective literatures share a thousand-year-old history with their origins in classical languages: Sanskrit and Pali with respect to Bengal, Latin with respect to Hungary.” This seemed to contradict the origin of Hungarian in the Finno-Ugric family. But I realize what has happened. Martin is referring to a sentence of Imre’s in the first chapter: “Both Bengali and Hungarian languages look back to a history of about a thousand years, at the beginning of which classical languages were literary languages: Sanskrit, Pali etc. for the Hindu and Buddhist Bengalis and Latin for the Christian Hungarians.” It is not that the Hungarian language originates in Latin, but that when Hungarians began to develop literature in their mother tongue, Latin was the literary language of Christian Europe, including the Hungarians. The shorthand style of reference in the Foreword has resulted in a sentence that might be misinterpreted, and this perhaps needs to be rectified in the second edition of the book. Imre has explained to me by e-mail that the relationship of Hungarian to Latin is rather like that of Telugu and Sanskrit. A vernacular can absorb learning from a cosmopolitan language of a different family and in the process absorb some of its essential vocabulary.
Perhaps another shorthand reference has occurred in the Foreword in the following sentence: “... both peoples were under foreign rule and broke lo[o]se only in the twentieth century.” I presume the reference is to Hungary’s relationship with Austria, but I feel that the question of ‘foreign’ rule is a matter of definition. The Magyars themselves arrived ‘from outside’. Some Bengalis might feel that Delhi rule, whether Mughal, British, or modern-Indian, is foreign rule, just as some Scottish people feel that ‘London rule is foreign rule’, or just as the British resent EEC diktats issuing from Brussels. Being under any kind of imperial rule or within some sort of federal consortium the centre of which is a few hundred miles away can be felt as constricting ‘foreign rule’, which is why post-imperial states so often explode into fragments. I have discussed this point with Imre and he agrees with me, saying that the distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘national’ is usually the creation of modern nationalism, and pointing out how Bangladeshis would now consider Delhi to be a ‘foreign’ ruler. Those of us who were children in the forties and had grown up playing with children of diverse communities received, in 1947, the perplexing message that Hindu and Muslim Bengalis could no longer live together in friendship within one nation. I haven’t forgotten the jolt – how incomprehensible the message seemed to me at that time. East Pakistan regarded West Pakistan first as a co-sharer within one new nation and then as an oppressive ‘foreign ruler’. All cosy feelings of compact, tribal nationhood as well as disturbing perceptions of the ‘foreignness’ of ‘others’ are in the end constructs.
Imre explains in his book that from the end of the seventeenth century Hungary was part of the Hapsburg Empire in a subordinate position. In the mid-nineteenth century there was an unsuccessful war of independence, followed by years of “passive resistance”, when the Hungarians drew inspiration from the Indian Mutiny. In 1867 Hungary reached the same status as Austria within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the First World War, Hungary became a sovereign state, but only at the expense of a partition that caused it to lose more than two-thirds of its historic territory to its old and new neighbouring states. The partition, and the consequent creation of two streams of literary writings (in this case within Hungary and outside Hungary) are indeed striking parallels between the fates of Hungarians and Bengalis. Another parallel between West Bengal and Hungary is the experience of communist rule, albeit within different frameworks. And communism has played a most interesting role in Hungary’s perception of Tagore, with his reputation rising and falling in accordance with shifts in political thinking.
In his wide-ranging assemblage of material Imre demonstrates that “it is sometimes interest in the different and sometimes interest in the similar” that motivated the Hungarian-Bengali interactions. This history is often one of misunderstandings, yet it helps us to understand the other side as well as our own.
It was Rabindranath Tagore – who else? – who was the first person to write in Bengali about Hungarian literature. I still remember the excitement with which Imre told me that I simply had to read Tagore’s 1894 article ‘Sahityer Gaurab’, published in the magazine Sadhana. The article had been included in the first edition of the book Sahitya, but I could not locate it in my Rabindra-rachanabali edition. It wasn’t there; it had been dropped. Never mind, Imre sent me the necessary pages, photocopied. In this article, touching the popular Hungarian novelist Mór Jókai, two of whose novels Tagore had read in English translation, we can see that Tagore’s “interest was attracted by Hungarian nationalism in its full bloom”. He admired the way nationalist sentiments had helped to consolidate Hungarian literature, and regretted the lack of that consolidation in his own territory. In view of his rejection of the competitive and politically aggressive nationalisms of an Europe of a later date, this early admiration of Hungarian national feeling leading to a celebration of literature is indeed striking, showing how his thinking has never been static, but has continuously evolved under the pressure of diverse experiences. Hungary was a non-colonizing nation that had recently emerged from its subordinate status, so in 1894 it was possible for Tagore to sympathize with its nationalist feelings, which taught Hungarians to be proud of their writers, such as Mór Jókai. Tagore wished that Bengalis could learn from the Hungarian example and be proud of a writer like Bankimchandra.
Hungry Tiger is a well constructed book, Imre’s own survey being laid out into six major chapters, the title of each clearly indicating its scope. The first chapter, to which I have already referred several times, is entitled ‘Literary Contacts through the Ages’, and the remaining five are: ‘Hungarian Travellers in Bengal’, ‘Tagore’s Reception in Hungary’, ‘Tagore’s Poetry in Hungarian’, ‘The Visit of a Poet-Prophet in Hungary’, and ‘Tagore’s memory in Balatonfüred’. The scholarship throughout is detailed and impressive, and the style of presentation is attractive, without the clutter of jargon, which makes reading the book a pleasurable experience, drawing the reader right into the heart of the narratives. Imre, I know, is continuing to gather more relevant material, which will hopefully go into a second edition of the book one day.
I have particularly enjoyed learning more about the Tibetologist Csoma de Kőrös, who has been one of my heroes ever since I did my doctoral researches in the early seventies. Later in the twentieth century efforts had apparently been made to see Csoma in a negative Saidian framework, as someone whose scholarship was in the service of British interests in Tibet. I am delighted to see that Imre exonerates Csoma from that charge: “Csoma can be considered as one of the most notable examples to contradict Saidian essentialism.” True, without the British presence in India and some of their intiatives, requests, and assistance, Csoma’s scholarship might not have borne fruit, but Csoma, “who was a Székler from Transylvania, an ethnic group that in his times claimed continuity with the Huns of the fifth century”, was fired first and foremost by “a universal human curiosity in exploring the unknown” and secondly by the patriotic idea of finding the roots of his own people in Asia, which is “nationalism in its most positive sense”. He fulfilled his promise to the British and found out all he could about Tibetan, writing the first grammar of the Tibetan language in English, and compiling the first Tibetan-English dictionary, works which are landmarks in nineteenth-century Oriental scholarship, but when he found that Tibetan was not related to Hungarian, he learnt Sanskrit and some Indian vernaculars including Bengali in the same quest. When he didn’t find the necessary links there either, “he set off for Lhasa and Chinese Turkestan to investigate the possibility of a Uigur-Hungarian relationship”. This restlessness shows a lively, inquistive mind rather than any political motivation. Talking of Uyghurs, once having heard Uyghur performers from Chinese Turkestan sing and dance in Oxford, I was so captivated, and so utterly intrigued by the resemblances between what I heard and northern Indian music that I was driven to write a poem about that experience! We know of Tagore’s poem ‘Sagarika’ and his thrill in discovering the traces of ancient Indian influence in the cultures of South-East Asia. So I sympathize, and agree entirely with Imre when he movingly says: “He [Csoma] was not working to present the Oriental people as the ‘others’, but was searching for relatives.” Searching for relatives – that’s precisely, and paradoxially, what we are often trying to do when we are ostensibly surveying ‘others’: we are not trying to distance ourselves from those ‘others’, but actually trying to come closer to them! Csoma was indeed searching for the ethnic origins of his people through a study of Oriental languages, but a search for relatives can be metaphorical rather than genealogical. We do search for people with whom we can be friends, with whom we can sense some spiritual affinity, or to put it in a modern idiom, with whom we are on the same wave-length. When Imre came to talk to me in the Rabindra Bhavan in Santiniketan with a big beaming smile, expecting to be accepted instantly as a friend, he was doing something similar. I am thrilled to know from this book that Csoma continues to be held in high esteem by Bengali scholars, that Hirendra Nath Mukherjee, while still a student at Presidency College, wrote a short biography of Csoma which was published in the Presidency College Magazine in 1926, which was later expanded into a full-length book, and that another Bengali, Durga Charan Chatterji, composed a quatrain in Sanskrit in praise of Csoma’s scholarship.
The coverage in this book of the other Hungarians who visited Bengal, including Ervin Baktay (the maternal uncle of Amrita Sher-Gil), Julius Germanus, the Professor of Islamic Studies at Visva-Bharati, Germanus’s wife Rózsa Hajnóczy who supposedly authored The Fire of Bengal, perhaps with some help from her husband, the two artistic Brunners (mother and daughter), and Eta Ghose who was married to the poet Kanti Ghose, should be of interest to Bengalis. The stories are told with all their complexities and ambivalences. For instance, in 1929 Baktay felt the Santiniketan campus to be “alien and artificial”, and found a disappointing discrepancy between the experience of reading Tagore’s literary works and his manner of holding himself aloof in real life: he “seemed to be posing coldly in direct personal communication as if he was always aware of his every gesture, every word. I have felt the poet, in whose works I have found so much beauty and value, to be alien.” One sees here some of the inherent pitfalls of cross-cultural transactions, especially if one of the parties has become a celebrity. The celebrity is afraid of being ridiculed or misunderstood or imposed upon, so is afraid of opening up, and becomes defensive. This is then interpreted as ‘posing’.
Germanus’s responses were extremely complicated. He was disappointed with Santiniketan and in some ways Santiniketan was not very satisfied with him either. In later years, he developed an idealized and nostalgic view of the place, which was probably motivated by Hungary’s changing politics. As Imre explains: “...in the early fifties – the years of Hungarian Stalinism – Tagore was discarded as an idealist whose world-view did not help to strengthen the official ideology of materialism. From 1956 on, however, he was considered to be a representative of the writers of the colonised Third World who fought against imperialism. In consequence he had to be praised.” As for Mrs Germanus’s The Fire of Bengal, based to a large extent on the couple’s life in Santiniketan and travels in India, with some fictional elements, I did give Imre quite a bit of feedback when he was writing this book, and I agree with his overall assessment that genre-wise it can be compared to the Romanian Mircea Eliade’s Maitreyi, which will no doubt be familiar to some who are reading this review. It should be pointed out that both Germanus and his wife display quite a bit of Europocentric arrogance even though Hungary was not a colonizing power.
I hope what I have said so far will whet the appetite of readers for the chapters that relate very directly to Tagore. These are exemplary in their overview of material available in a plurality of languages and in the mastery of detail. The account of Tagore’s 1926 visit to Hungary, moving effortlessly between Hungarian and Bengali sources, is quite a tour de force in its sweep and colourful qualities, and in its warmth, human understanding, and compassion. Imre emphasizes that Tagore and his travelling companion Mrs Mahalanobis felt very much at home in Hungary, more there than almost anywhere else in Europe. I shall just refer to two points that struck me in this Tagore-related section. The first is from the chapter ‘Tagore’s Reception in Hungary’ and gives us an insight into the necessary psychological complexity of responses to ‘foreign’ artists:
“In the 1920s, Tagore’s ideas received responses from authors who were born or lived in regions lost after the World War. The reason for this is not simply that apart from Budapest the centres of Hungarian literary life fell outside the new boundaries. Even from among the Budapest-based writers it was the ones whose hometown[s] had been ‘lost’ that[who?] wrote about Tagore. They had an additional motivation to perceive the irrationality of western thought that led to a war and then to a peace that they considered unjust. Their disillusionment urged them to examine whether Rabindranath would offer an alternative to western thinking.”
I believe this kind of reaction may have parallels elsewhere – in Slovenia perhaps?
The other point is from the chapter ‘The Visit of a Poet-Prophet in Hungary’. The two essential aspects of this encounter have been rightly highlighted. One is Tagore’s own “deep desire to experience expressions of humanity in different people all around the world”. Yes, Tagore too believed in ‘knowing the world’; he was, as we know, thirsty for the far horizon. The other aspect is the way the Hungarians reciprocated, how they in their turn tried to reach out to him in a very human way:
“Among the inconveniences of celebrity and the innumerable cases of misunderstanding there were also some spontaneous moving events during the journey. It is enough to remember the children of Professor Korányi or the villagers singing at the window of the poet. In many instances meeting Tagore brought out the best in those who saw him and the dividing line between East and West was dissolved on the ground of common humanity as in the case of the Gipsy group leader Béla Radics’s [gipsy violinist] visit to the sick poet ...”
This analysis has a strong resonance for me, reminding me of the many similar moments of cross-cultural human sympathy I found recorded in the journals and memoirs of the British in India in the 90-year period before the Mutiny, which was the area of my own doctoral researches. And there are of course many such moments in Tagore’s own memories of his international travels, from his very first visit to England in 1878 to his visit to Persia in 1932. There are clear parallels with Tagore’s experiences in Argentina only two years prior to his Hungarian sojourn. There too, as in Hungary, he was ill, but he still wanted to meet people and talk to them. The Hungarian gipsy violinist Béla Radics standing by Tagore’s bedroom door and playing to soothe and heal him, but not entering the room, as described by Rani Mahalanobis, reminds me of the Castro quartet that played Debussy, Ravel and Borodin for Tagore in Miralrío: the musicians were in the hall on the ground floor, while the poet, not feeling well, remained in his bedroom at the top of the stairs, with the door ajar. And that cannot but remind us of that misadventure in England recalled in Jibansmriti, hilarious and lugubrious at the same time, when the teenaged Tagore, after an evening of travail, had the very next morning to sing a lamentation in the raga Behag, penned in English by an Indian, in front of the closed door of a sick lady.
The six chapters written by Imre himself are followed by some Appendices. Appendix A presents carefully chosen and suitably introduced documentary material that greatly enhances the value of the coverage in the main survey, while Appendix B provides a list of newspaper articles relating to Tagore in the Hungarian Press. Appendix A, ranging from Tagore’s 1894 article on Hungarian literature, so generous in spirit, to Georg Lukács’s notorious 1922 review of Ghare-Baire, in which he foolishly dismissed the novel as “a petty bourgeois yarn of the shoddiest kind”, is a real winner. Anybody who wishes to gain an insight into how ideology can enslave the intellect should read the Lukács piece. My own favourites in this section are the short story ‘The Tree that Set Forth’, the poem ‘Towards the Eastern Sunrise’, and the engrossing extracts from Elizabeth Brunner’s unpublished autobiogaphy. I was also moved to read, in Baktay’s account of his visit to Tagore, of Tagore’s tree-house “on the edge of the Surul campus”, accessible only with the help of a ladder and complete with a tiny bathroom. That is where Tagore used to retire when he wanted real solitude. Seeing it, Baktay was suddenly “overcome by deep compassion for the Poet”. Tagore had created “a small new world around him”, but sometimes that creation of his became a burden to him, and he had to escape from it. There are some very genuine insights, too, in the article on Tagore by István Sőtér.
In conclusion, I would recommend this book to all who wish to understand the delights as well as hazards of cross-cultural meetings. Reading Hungry Tiger and remembering other narratives of such meetings have made me think a lot about these issues, so let me indicate in brief where those thoughts have led me.
First, the purely literary aspect of such a meeting depends, of course, very much on whether the two sides can read each other’s texts, and failing direct access, on the availability of reliable translations, but it also depends on the cultural mood of those receiving the new input. If the latter think that they are going to receive something that will expand their intellectual and artistic horizons while enriching and nourishing their own identities at the same time, they will sometimes go out of their way to dig for the new riches and discover meaning in them. Even re-translations will be meaningful for them then. It was along such a route that the publications of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Asiatick Researches, took Europe by storm at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, expanding the horizons of European scholars, making them re-think their notions of the Orient, and modernizing their outlook. A similar process took place in the explosion we call the Bengal Renaissance. Sometimes a search for roots, sometimes a sense of loss or of impoverishment, or a gnawing dissatisfaction with ways of thinking that are felt to be outmoded will trigger a quest and sharpen receptivity. But if the literati of a country have an entrenched superiority complex which convinces them that they have nothing to learn from others, even high-quality material that is available will not persuade them to cast a serious glance at it.
Secondly, besides the interactions of elites, there are also important moments when the ordinary people of a country are touched and moved by a foreign phenomenon, and the value of such connective moments for human societies should not be underestimated either, because they emphasize our common humanity and bring people of different countries together. The same triggers as enumerated above can activate a spiritual thirst amongst ordinary men and women, and cause them to seek comforting and uplifting messages from a teacher from abroad, as happened in post-war Germany and Hungary. Any such quest that increases the bonds of friendship between different peoples needs to be cherished rather than diminished in our problem-ridden world. The West has a double game that it loves to play, first seeking ‘gurus’ from the East, then running them down for preaching to the rest of the world. Tagore has often been a victim of this double game.
Thirdly, the media play a shady role in this double game, first helping to make someone an international celebrity, and then mocking him and pulling him apart..
Fourthly, though some Orient-related scholarship of Western scholars may have been co-opted into ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’ projects, not all can be described in such clear-cut terms. Some scholars throughout the ages have been disinterested seekers of knowledge. In other cases, terms such as ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’ have to be expanded or re-defined for the Saidian paradigm to deliver any meaning. The arrogance of a Germanus was very Europocentric, but not in the service of any empire. With or without empires, there can be a superiority complex that is based on a group’s sense of achievement, material, intellectual, or spiritual. Religious establishments and aspiring political ideologies can ooze as much arrogance as actual empires. Lukács’s dreadful misunderstanding of Tagore was in the service of communist ideology: perhaps we could say that it was in the service of a communist imperial project, but Lukács himself would not have viewed it as such. There can even be consolidations of power within the learned communities which are hegemonic in nature: many a time have I marvelled at the hegemonic attitudes of the so-called ‘post-colonial’ critics right across the world, who by a term such as ‘Indian (or South Asian) literature’ understand only what is written in English, devoting much energy and finances in elevating, magnifying, disseminating authors in that category, while completely bypassing those who write in the native languages of the region, rendering them – to borrow a term from the Argentina of the days of military dictatorship – desaparecidos, or ‘disappeared ones’. They seem to have a project of their own too: is this also not a form of realpolitik, and are we allowed to call it a ‘neo-colonial’ academic enterprise?
I hope that the task of translating Tagore into Hungarian directly from the Bengali will begin in the not too distant future. Imre will surely agree with Martin’s point in the Foreword that only after sufficient numbers of direct translations have come out can there be a true re-evaluation of Tagore’s works in Europe. Imre has himself translated a few poems of Tagore into Hungarian, and I am sure could translate some more, perhaps in collaboration with a Hungarian poet to advise on the final form and another Bengali who is not just a ‘native speaker’ but understands the language of poetry. As the person who knows both the languages in question, he would be the linchpin of such a team. After attending an international poetry translation workshop in Slovenia in 2007, I am convinced that intelligently and sensitively used, such a strategy can work. Using similar methods, reasonable translations of Tagore’s prose could be undertaken too. And I don’t mean that only Tagore needs to be translated; there is a plethora of good writers out there, waiting to be translated. And it goes without saying that Bengalis should translate from the Hungarian too. A few poems and short stories have indeed been done, as Imre informs us in his first chapter, using one or more intermediate languages. I recollect translating one poem of Mihály Babits in collaboration with Imre. At the end of the day we have to face the fact that unless there is some collaborative effort, the literatures of most languages will remain untranslated. And unless there are reliable translations, there will be no end of misunderstandings.
I only wish Sahitya Akademi had taken a little more loving care of such a scholarly piece of work. In spite of the book spending a long time at the printer’s, a few misprints remain: not many, just a few, but enough to be disconcerting in a learned book. The book could have also done with some copy-editing to regularize punctuation and eliminate the occasional slips or infelicities of the kind that a polyglot scholar is apt to make when writing in his second or third language. It is 99% there, and publishers in India, where everybody is now so proud of the standards and achievements of ‘Indian English’, owe it to such scholars who have made India their field, to assist them with the remaining 1%. What good is the prestige of English in India if those who handle it so confidently cannot offer a modicum of editorial assistance to a scholar who has made it his business to study Indian languages and is at the same time capable of delivering a book in English for the international community, which is 99% there? Is this also a double game being played by the Indian learned classes? Many who write in English in India cannot write in any other language but that; here is a ‘foreign’ scholar who can write about India in three languages. Surely he deserves some assistance from those who are English-savvy.
Let me give here one instance of the kind of slip that can arise directly from a constant attention to a plurality of languages. On p. 234 I read, about a book, that “it was revised in several periodicals in October and November 1926”, where the author clearly means reviewed, not revised. The root-meaning of both words is roughly the same, referring to seeing or looking at something again, but the active meanings have diverged. When speaking to me in Bengali, Imre sometimes does something analogous: he uses a word in its Hindi sense, that is to say, the word is common to both Hindi and Bengali, but the meanings have slightly diverged, and Imre uses it in its Hindi nuance, because he is immersed in teaching and studying that language. This is indeed a small matter, but I feel that as Sahitya Akademi is a major academic publisher in India, a little intelligent copy-editing to support the work of foreign scholars for whom English is not a natural mother tongue and who are engaged in putting Indian languages and literatures on the map of the world would be entirely appropriate.
By the way, “Prof. Shibaji Bhattacharja at Jadavpur University” who is thanked in the Acknowledgements is surely the well-known academic Prof. Shibaji Bandyopadhyay, and I hope he is not feeling too much abhimaan at this metamorphosis of his surname. If a joke about caste is permitted, I would like to point out that even in this slip his caste status has been respected! Again, this is just the kind of slip someone at the publisher’s end could have picked up and weeded out.
But my principal regret is that Sahitya Akademi has not included a single photograph! In his Acknowledgements, the author thanks “the Rabindra Bhavan in Santiniketan for the copyright of several photographs”, but where are the photographs? This book, which is so richly documented in the textual sense, is crying out for some visual material, which would have made it a little more reader-friendly. Books like this are always enhanced by a few photographs. Readers remember the visual images and connect them with the text, with the story being told. Printing a few photographs is surely no big deal in this day and age. Technology has made such advances, and India is supposed to be teeming with competent, advanced printers. If it is a question of money, I am sure potential customers of this book would happily pay a few more rupees to have a book which was a little more visually eloquent. Indeed, putting in a few photographs is a good investment for a publisher, as it widens a book’s market. I sincerely hope that this book will soon be given a second printing, with the minor errors corrected, the title identical on the cover, the title-page, and the ISBN page, and all the photographs restored.
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