In Manuscripts of Rabindranath Tagore Octavio Paz enlightens us thus, "Although Rabindranath has influenced some of our Hispanic-American poets, none of our poets have had any kind of influence on him. He was not well versed in Spanish and in his writings there is no hint of his acquaintance with our writers or our tradition".
Latin America was rather unknown to Rabindranath all his life. Although for two complete months, November 1924 to January 1995, Rabindranath was a guest of Victoria Ocampo of Argentina, the truth is even in his later life, Tagore developed no deeper interest about Spanish art and literature or the Hispanic tradition. In a letter after this visit to Argentina, Rabindranath wrote, "I used to feel very sad thinking why I did not learn the Spanish language ever in my life." After writing this letter Rabindranath lived for another sixteen years or so. But there is no indication that he had any kind of attraction for this language or its literature. It might have been because of his advancing age and tremendous preoccupations. Whatever references he made to Latin tradition or to Argentina are found in those letters and in a particular poem. Maybe it is the only poem where the word 'Hispani' can be located. He wrote, "This local Hispani gives no clue" (Ektuoto deyna avash ei deshi Ispani).
During Rabindranath's lifetime the works of such great Spanish writers as Miguel de Cervantes, Quevedo, Gongora and Miguel de Unamuno were translated in English. But none of them could ever enter the world of Rabindranath's interest. On the other hand, Rabindranath became the centre of curiosity, enthusiasm, literary practices and inspiration for some of the influential Spanish writers. The list is quite rich: Juan Ramon Jimenez of Spain; Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidorbo, Bolodia Teitelboim of Chile; Jose Vasconselos, also education minister and Octavio Paz of Mexico; Romulo Gallego of Venezuela, Cecilia de Meireles of Brazil and Victoria Ocampo of Argentina. Of course there are many others beyond this very august list. But the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was extremely critical and sensitive on the question of artistic perfection and subtlety, was also among them. This we came to learn at a much later period.
It is well-known that one-third of Jimenez's writings are translations of Rabindranath's writings in Spanish. One of the poems in Neruda's first book of verses (Twenty Love Songs and One Song of Despair) is an exact translation of Tagore's famous song, 'You are the evening clouds' (Tumi Shondhar Meghomala). And everyone knows about the much-read writing of Ocampo on Rabindranath, the Bangla translation of which appeared much earlier in Shankho Ghosh's translation, 'Ocampo's Rabindranath'. But what was not known to us is that even Borges focused his attention on Rabindranath for some time or the other over his entire lifetime. But this attention was not as marked by deep infatuation as was the case with Borges' friend and literary companion Victoria Ocampo. The reason for such lack of passion is definitely related to the differences in their literary tastes.
At the time of its very first appearance, Sur, the literary magazine, played a dominant role in disseminating the intellectualism and thoughts of Latin America. Victoria Ocampo included Borges as a co-editor. From Borges' own telling of the story we come to know that from the very beginning Ocampo took the profound thoughtfulness and creative power in the younger Borges, quite seriously. Although Borges and Ocampo had deep respect for each other, a closer relationship never evolved between the two owing to their differences in literary tastes. Ocampo admired Baudelaire more than she did Victor Hugo. Borges had just the opposite preference. The importance that Ocampo gave Ortega y Gasset of the West and Rabindranath of the East, was something Borges could never share with her.
Rabindranath found aesthetic pleasure and certainty by using adjectives and similes in a wider spectrum, very much like the 'bistar' and 'aalap' that we find in classical Indian music. In contrast, Borges would discover the mysterious trends of the human soul from the labyrinth of appropriateness, duality, quickness and economisation. Still, though this contrast existed, Borges, at various phases of his life, paid attention to Rabindranath and his works. Readers will be surprised to learn that there were meetings and conversations between the two. We are certain that Borges was familiar with Rabindranath's writings even before he met the poet at Ocampo's home in Buenos Aires.
In 1921 Borges wrote an article, titled 'La Metafora', in the 35th issue of Cosmopolitan, a literary magazine published form Madrid. In the article he mentioned Rabindranath. Three years later, Rabindranath arrived in Argentina. Borges was a voracious reader. He began reading Rabindranath while he was in Spain, the land where he also started writing his own pieces.
If we consider the links and sources of language and personality, two names in Spanish literature will surface in our minds --- Juan Ramon Jimenez and Rafael Cansinos Assens. Borges used to call the latter his literary guru. Both these great writers translated Rabindranath's writings in Spanish. Between the two, of course, Jimenez is more renowned as a translator of Rabindranath's works. Although Rafael Cansinos-Assens did not translate much of Rabindranath's writings, he will be no less remembered among Spanish readers for his translation of Tagore's work, The Religion of Man. Borges was closely related to both these writers. Maybe he had heard of Rabindranath Tagore from either or both of them, or maybe he was familiar with the English translation of Rabindranath's works beforehand, or perhaps he had come across the French translations of Rabindranath's work by Andre Gide since Borges had learnt French in school in Geneva.
The first reference to Tagore by Borges is found in the article 'La Metafora'.
When Borges wrote this article he was involved with the literary movement in Spain called 'Ultra'. The same year he returned to Buenos Aires and established a literary movement by the same name; and in Nosotros magazine (1921) edited by Alfredo Bianchi, he proclaimed the literary philosophy and thoughts of 'Ultraism'. One of the postulates of this theory is: 'Lyric should be condensed to its original element - metaphor'. In those turbulent days of the literary movement, the young Borges was probably somewhat inspired by Rabindranath's book of verse, Crescent Moon, published in November 1913 by Macmillan. Did the experience of reading this book indirectly influence the young Borges to write 'La Metafora' and construct the literary theory of 'Ultraism'? It is true that through a coinage of the words 'our Rabindranath and Lugones' Borges drew Rabindranath closer to his heart. The feeling was to continue three years later when Rabindranath arrived in Buenos Aires in November 1924. At the time of Tagore's arrival, Borges, with great enthusiasm, announced the event under a news caption, 'Arrival of Rabindranath', in the November issue of 'Proa'. This literary magazine had been launched for the second time by Ricardo Gurilades, a writer and Borges' friend, just two months earlier, in August 1924). To quench the curiosity of our readers I shall quote some lines from the news item here:
"Rabindranath in Buenos Aires. I was searching for such testimonies which will be a visible sign of the miracle, one clearer graceful trend in the vocation of the world, the mild colour of the breeze, the ever unseen rainbow over the rooftop. My merciful restlessness could not find them. But while rereading the Davidic and passionate verses of Gitanjali and Gardener, I witnessed the awe that poetry from such a far-away land is involved so deeply with my hours, and that their call was easy like the guitars in the backyard. Images of the Ganges and Aurora encrafted in those verses fulfil our passionate lives and the settings in Buenos Aires confirm what Bengal is observing those landscapes being recreated here.
.... It seems my town and Rabindranath - these two huge realities are very much alive in time and space; they have mingled like the sweet melodies of two rivers - knowing this is sufficient to me, at the same time it is both pleasant and enthralling."
(La llegada de Tagore)
If we closely observe the citation of Rabindranath in 'La Metafora' and the comment-filled news in the magazine 'Proa', we shall notice Borges had no fascination about Rabindranath. What is left is the expression of his emotion that swindles in hopes and despair. And he has expressed his feelings by blending them with somewhat poetical and oblique expressions. Even though Borges has provided the indication of his delight and gripping experience of reading one or two works of Rabindranath. But he gave no definite reason for such expressions. It appears Borges has chained all his superficial expressions to negations, anchored in fathomless depth. The main reason may be the sharp difference between the artistic nature of Rabindranath with that of Borges. But through these comments Borges did not fully expose the differences between their literary tastes. He did it at a much later stage. After 13 years of his meeting with Rabindranath, Borges expressed his view while he was reviewing Rabindranath's Collected Poems and Plays published in the 11th June, 1937 edition of El Hogar magazine. In that review Borges wrote:
"Thirteen years ago I had a somewhat terrible experience meeting with revered and sonorous-voiced Rabindranath. We were discussing Baudelaire's poems and someone recited the sonnet titled 'The Death of Lovers' several times. This particular poem was a jumble of many stuffs - bed, divan, flower, fireplace, tablecloth, mirror and angels. After listening to the poem attentively, Rabindranath commented, "I do not like your poet of furniture". I fully agreed with him. By reading his works in recent time, I am becoming suspicious that Rabindrnath was more moved by the obscure, invincible love rather than by the terrors of those romantic bick-a-brac.
The lack of precision in Tagore is beyond any correction. There is no lyrical tension in his thousand and one line verses; neither they have any verbal diminution. In the introduction Rabindranath commented, 'we should bath in the oceanic depth of structure'. His metaphors are traditional; in the customary manner they are fluidic and devoid of structure.
After this statement Borges himself translated the 62nd poem of Gardener. In this context my own observation is the finest English translation of the finest poems of Rabindranath was not available around that time. Whatever translations were available in hand, those, in Humayun Kabir's observation 'did not do any justice to the depth and quality of the originals.' It is true Rabindranath translated his own poems but those deviated much from the original ones. For example, why he did not translate one of his most extraordinary poems '1400' fully, is not at all explicable. On the other hand, he translated some poems which do not completely represent poet Rabindranath. The comments Borges made on the traditional translations of that time may contain some grains of truth, but it has definitely overlooked the greatness of Rabindranath's total personality and works. Even in his comment in the article 'Infinita Perplejidad' published on September 21, 1932 in the Argentine daily 'Critica' where Borges commented on the Nobel Prize he has undermined the due recognition and honour Rabindranath deserves. He wrote, 'Favouritism is a part of the tradition of Nobel Prize. Undoubtedly Benavente and Echegaray were fortunate by the sole prestige of Bizet's music. Being fortunate to be born as a Bangali, and being adorned with rare glory, Rabindranath is indebted to the eternal soul of Bangla. Similarly Seinkiewics was a happy Polish."
It's true, regional consideration and biases are still very active in awarding Nobel Prize. But in citing this tradition of favouritism, whatever comment Borges have made by diminishing Rabindranath's contribution, do not express the complete and deeper understanding of Rabindranath. Yet the Essayist and Thinker Rabindranath is much more significant to Borges than Poet or Dramatist Rabindranath. The thoughtful Rabindranath appeared more relevant and visionary to Borges. In the May-June, 1961 edition of Sur magazine, Borges wrote an essay on Rabindranath's book on Nationalism. To understand Borges and Rabindranath better, this article is quite important. Understanding the interest the readers might have, I am quoting a significant portion of that article here:
... The culture of the West and that of the East merged inside this man who used both Bangla and English languages in his writings. Every page of this book carries the Asian definiteness about the endless possibility of human soul; in the same fashion it contains the anxiety of the state machinery, which has inspired Spencer.
Borges wrote this article on Rabindranath in 1961, on the centenary year of Rabindranath's birth. This year, in the 150th year of Rabindranath's birth, the same revelation is equally pertinent. Borges, despite their differences in artistic preferences and literary philosophies, made no mistake in identifying this power within Rabindranath.
Translated from Bangla by Kamrul Hassan