IN EVERY NEW CLASS, one or two students make their presence felt on the very first day. Sometimes it’s because of how they look, sometimes for how they dress, sometimes for what they say. Sometimes it is by virtue of a certain demeanour or an acuteness of gaze. And more often than not, the teacher’s initial impression is borne out in the course of the class: the student turns out to be the sharpest or the most articulate, the one who asks the most interesting or vexing questions. He or she is the one who adds life to the classroom, who makes the teacher feel that teaching is worthwhile after all.
This was how Joya discovered Martin Shawncross that sticky-hot, road-surface-melting, blistering Louisiana summer day she strode briskly into the small seminar room she had reserved for her course on Tagore and Translation, an alliterative title that had greatly pleased her when she thought it up and which, she hoped, would catch the attention of at least a few of the undergraduates.
By this time Joya was a senior amongst the doctoral students in DEBACLE, in the final stretch, course requirements completed, comprehensive exam passed with distinction, dissertation well in progress. Unlike most of her peers she did not have to struggle to find a worthwhile dissertation topic. She steadfastly kept to her original intention, and in the course of her first two years in Huntington, even as she took courses, wrote term papers, and passed exams, she systematically, even ruthlessly, sifted through various possibilities, considered this, rejected that until finally she had a topic which she triumphantly presented to Hari Lall: The Female Gaze in Salman Rushdie’s Fiction. And even as she prepared for the arduous comprehensive exam she began writing the first chapter of her dissertation. Like her mentor, or perhaps influenced by him, she believed in the narrative as a way to make meaning out of literary experiences, and so she began at the beginning and was writing linearly, as if she was writing a story. Indeed, it was meant to be a story. For Jaya, the hallmark of excellence of any piece of long writing, whether a novel, an epic poem, or a scholarly work, is that the reader must always want to know what happens next, like the child listening to her mother tell a bedtime story and asking and then? Not for her a turgid Ph.D. text which, apart from a small, suffering, and resigned committee, no one would ever read; not for her a dissertation bound in red cloth and lettered in gold, colours that would fade as it languished on the shelves of university libraries. She planned to publish it as a book but a book that must be as compelling a read—well, almost—as the Rushdie novels she was writing about.
She had already had the privilege of authoring an article based on her work-in-progress published as a chapter in a multi-author book on Magical Realism and the Postcolonial, edited by a distinguished Berkeley colleague of Hari Lall, and she was basking in its glory, the object of the secret envy of her fellow graduate students most of whom, being in statu pupillari, considered themselves lucky if they could present a short paper in some conference or workshop, or publish a book review in some journal. Indeed, as Hari Lall wryly told Joya, she was even envied by a few of DEBACLE’s faculty whose publication records were still rather spotty.
In short, she was a graduate student star in the DEBACLE community, which was why the head of the department consented to her proposal to offer an upper-level undergraduate special topics course on the subject she had selected.
The translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Bangla poetry into English, first by himself then by others, was a vexing and controversial issue in its own right. There were those, all Bengalis, who maintained that Tagore’s Bangla poems were untranslatable. Yet his works, not only poems but plays, short stories, and novels and even, of late, his songs continued to be translated even now, sixty years after his passing, a hundred and fifty years after his birth.
What fascinated Joya, though this had nothing to do with either Salman Rushdie or magical realism, was whether Tagore’s own translation of his poems and plays into English—beginning with the poems collected and published as Gitanjali, Song-Offerings in 1912, which so excited people like W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and André Gide and won him a Nobel Prize in 1913, the first Asian to be so honoured, and which in turn catapulted him overnight into an international literary celebrity—should count as Indian literature in English. This was going to be the subject of her course that summer.
MARTIN SHAWNCROSS WAS AMONGST the half-a-dozen students who gathered in one of the smaller seminar rooms in DEBACLE’s physical space that day. If, for Joya, he stood apart from the others on first sight, it was not because he was rakishly thin and tall or had a shaved head or sported granny glasses or even wore a batik shirt, a kurti as they call the short kurta back in India. It was his eyes. And the moment Joya saw him she remembered a phrase a friend had used about a professor back in Kolkata: “his eyes ooze intelligence”—and this was what came to her mind observing him across the elliptical seminar table.
She took attendance and learnt their names. She asked who had heard of or knew about Tagore. Only Martin Shawncross raised his hand. So why were the others taking this course? Because, they murmured, apologetically, they were all minoring in Commonwealth literature and this was the only relevant course on offer in the summer. They needed the credit hours.
She masked her disappointment, her sense of deflation. She could not have expected much more, she could not have thought that they were eager to study Tagore, for she well knew that Tagore had all but disappeared from the West’s literary consciousness, even though this year was the 150th anniversary of his birth, there were commemorative events in New York, Washington, D.C., and the like, and Harvard University Press had even published a large selection of his works mostly in translation. In fact, it was this very occasion of anniversary that had prompted her to offer this course in the first place.
She turned towards Martin. ‘How did you come to know about Tagore?’
‘From my grandmother,’ he replied.
She stared in astonishment. ‘Your grandmother?’
He nodded, a faint gleam of amusement in his disconcertingly limpid eyes. For several seconds she said nothing but just gazed at him. She could not imagine an American grandmother knowing about Tagore. She was probably a Cajun grandmother—Joya was assuming that Martin was Cajun since most of the undergraduates in DEBACLE, like most in Huntington as a whole, were local, from Scotiaville and the surrounding parishes which made up Cajun country. Was he pulling her leg? Perhaps he was one of those American undergrads who, seeing a foreign teacher walk into the classroom on the first day—a brown foreign teacher at that, and young and patently inexperienced—thought they might have a spot of fun at the teacher’s expense.
She resolved to speak to him after class. But the opportunity never arose, that day or in the next several classes. Each time, as soon as class was over, he darted out and by the time she had gathered up her notes and books or had answered someone or the other’s questions, and come out into the hallway, he was nowhere in sight. Once when she gestured for him to wait, he murmured, ‘Sorry, I have to go,’ and disappeared.
In class, she found him perplexing. There were days when he was very vocal, challenging, confrontational even, when he would put her on the defensive. Other times he was silent in a sullen sort of way, taking notes but otherwise scarcely attentive, scarcely looking at her. And then she would feel slighted, even diminished and, later, be angry with herself for feeling like this.
For their mid-term essay, she assigned her students a paper on Tagore’s first venture into English writing, the poems of Gitanjali. Martin’s paper was by far the most acute, the most well-researched, but what startled—no, more than that, stunned—Joya was an awareness of the Indian backdrop to the poems.
This was no naïve American or Western stereotypical vision of the mysterious Orient, the India of such words as mantra and guru and karma and avatar, words that had so penetrated the English-American vocabulary, the vision that had so overwhelmed Yeats and captivated the West in the decade following the First World War. The paper was the product of a sceptic who was not easily swayed by hints of mysticism, of a nonbeliever, an atheist. What stung Joya most was a certain scornful impatience with which Martin Shawncross greeted Gitanjali. This was not the postmodernist’s scorn for the modern, but an impatience towards a poet of the modernist age who was not a modern. Tagore, Martin wrote, though belonging to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, albeit an Indian, had skipped the modernism of these eras. ‘These are psalms, and psalms have no place unless they address the poet’s own age.’
She gave him an “A” of course, but it was a sulky “A”. Her scholarly objectivity was, for once, dislodged.
For the first time she realized that as a Bengali she could not gracefully accept this kind of violently critical gaze on the most beloved of Bengal’s icons—especially from a foreigner!
About the Author
Subrata Dasgupta is a multidisciplinary scholar, teacher, and writer. He holds the Computer Science Trust Fund Eminent Scholar Chair in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Born in Kolkata, he was educated in England, India, and Canada.