Saturday, March 15, 2014

Rabindranath Tagore: A Sage In The Dust By Sajed Kamal

 Rabindranath Tagore: A Sage In The Dust
By Sajed Kamal
Bangla Academy Press

By Myles Gordon

    When local writer Sajed Kamal decided to translate fifty poems of India’s most revered, admired writer into English, he wasn’t overwhelmed by the difficult task. Maybe that’s because the Bengali-born, now Boston resident, Kamal grew up in the shadow of literary genius.
    Kamal’s book, Rabindranath Tagore: A Sage In The Dust, is a heartfelt translation of India’s most acclaimed, beloved writer. Born in 1861, Tagore published thousands of poems, plays, novels, songs, and stories, founded and ran a progressive children’s school, and was an accomplished painter before his death at the age of eighty. One of his poems became Bangladesh’s national anthem, another, India’s, and in 1913, he became the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize for literature.    
    Kamal decided to attempt the translations a few years ago simply because he loved Tagore’s work and felt a new translation, into a more colloquial English than previous tries, was overdo. A hefty assignment? Certainly. But Kamal hails from high literary pedigree and accomplishment. His mother, Sufia Kamal was also a legendary poet in Bangladesh., of whom none other than the great Tagore said in 1938: Your poetic talent amazes me. You have a high place in Bengali literature, as constant and established as the North Star. Accept my blessings.
    Sajed Kanal, who has lived in the Boston area for decades, has written several books of poems himself and is a teacher and noted activist for renewable energy. Having grown up surrounded by the poetry of his mother, he began his translations of Tagore in his kitchen, after work, as a pleasant hobby. As the project took shape, he realized he was onto something with depth and substance that in 2012 was published as a book.
    To keep the work fresh, Kamal wrote in an email, about half the poems in the book have never been translated. The rest came out in older translations that he wanted to update unfettered by stifling rhyme and rhythmic schemes of the early twentieth century. The book is a bilingual edition – the poems written in the original Bengali language opposite the pages of their English translations. A Sage In The Dust captures Tagore’s great spirituality and romanticism, and humanist optimism in such poems as “To Civilization”

    Give back that wilderness, take this city,
    take all the iron, bricks, lumber and stones,
    O new Civilization…
    I do not want the variety of royal feasts
    in the security of your stony cage.
    I want freedom. I want to spread my wings,
    I want to regain my power within my heart,
    I want to break out of my captivity
    to let the heartbeat of the universe touch my soul!

    The poem evokes Whitman’s scope and grandeur and the awakening of the grand individual in the expanding, modernized world. Tagore was also a political poet who took daring, unpopular stances on staid, Indian tradition. His poem, “Chores,” attacks the caste system, which he detested:

    My servant is nowhere to be seen in the morning.   
    My door’s open, my bath water isn’t ready,
    the worthless idiot didn’t come home hast night…
    he looks at my face—then says to me
    in a voice choked with emotion:
    “Last night around midnight my little girl died.”
    So saying, in a hurry, with his gamochha on his shoulder,
    he goes off alone to do his daily chores.

    In his early career, such public stances often brought Tagore rebuke from local government. As his fame and prestige grew, he became a voice of and for the people commenting and advising on matters ranging from politics to spirituality, as in the poem “Renunciation”:

    Said a man in the depth of night, renouncing the world,
    “I’ll leave home to search for God.
    Who is it that keeps me allured here?”
    I do, “ said God. But he didn’t hear it…
    The child cries out in his dream, clinging to his mother.
    God said, “Turn back.” But he didn’t hear the call.
    “Alas,” said God with a sigh,
    “where is my devotee going leaving me here?”

    Obviously these are poems written in another time and another culture, but thanks to Kamal’s tender and thoughtful translation, they are accessible, without being archaic. Some of the poems, like “Circling,” are timeless. It could have been written a hundred years ago. It could have been written yesterday.

    Incense longs to unite itself with fragrance,
        fragrance  longs to pervade in incense.
    Melody longs to be caught in rhythm,
        rhythm longs to run back to melody.
    Essence longs for a body in form,
        form longs for freedom in essence.
    Infinity longs for the intimate company of finite,
        finite logs to lose itself in infinity.
In creation and destruction—I don’t know whose logic this is:
    this endless back and forth between essence and form,
bond searching constantly for its freedom,
    freedom begging for a home in bondage.

    The book launch for A Sage In The Dust took place in January, at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, in Cambridge. The small room was packed with many of the audience members from India and Bangladesh. The poems were read, first in Bengali, than in Kamal’s English translation. Many in the audience murmured the poems out loud from memory, in Bengali, as Kamal, and others, read. The respect for Tagore as a major literary figure was palpable. Sajed Kamal has spent years making Tagore’s work accessible for an English speaking audience – a labor of love and a wonderful book.

        About The Author

Myles Gordon’s book-length book of poetry, Inside the Splintered Wood, was recently published by Tebot Bach (Huntington Beach, CA), as winner of the press’s “Patricia Bibby First Book Competition.” His chapbook, Recite Every Day, was published by Evening Street Press (Dublin, Ohio) in 2009, as winner of the press’s “Helen Kay Chapbook Competition.” He is a past winner of the Grolier Poetry Prize, and honorable mention for an AWP Intro Award – Poetry. He has published poetry in numerous journals including Slipstream and Rattle. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a Master of Education from the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. He teaches school in Revere, Massachusetts and has previously worked as a television producer for WCVB TV, where he won four New England Emmy Awards for his writing and producing efforts.

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