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Amrit Sen’s Review of Pathos in the Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore

K. V. Dominic’s Pathos in the Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore.

New Delhi: Sarup Book Publishers Ltd., 2009, Hardbound, Pp. x+140, Rs 450. ISBN-978-81-7625-923-1

Dr. Amrit Sen

K. V. Dominic’s book is a welcome addition in the field of Tagore studies since it addresses an area relatively unfamiliar to global Tagore scholars. While the poetry and novels of Tagore have received wider attention, it is often forgotten that he brought the modern story to Bengal and located some of his most incisive social criticism in them. Dominic uses Tagore’s use of the mode of pathos as a point of entry into an analysis of his awareness of society, nature and the consciousness of the child. Dominic explores how the mode of pathos reveals Tagore’s deep uneasiness with the contemporary exploitation of women and the fettering of the free spirit of the child.

The strength of this book is its chapters on the use of pathos in the depiction of women. Dominic takes us sensitively through stories like “The Wife’s Letter”, “The Postmaster”, to posit a critique of child marriage and the exploitation of widows in contemporary society. At the same time the dramatic conflicts of love, desire and anguish are deftly brought out in his analysis. The discussion on “The Wedding Garland” deserves special mention here because it alerts us to the use of silence and symbolism as the significant features through which an adolescent’s desires are explored. The rebellious instincts of Mrinal in “A Wife’s Letter” is contrasted with the submissiveness of Bindu, to raise at once a realistic depiction of the marginalized status of the woman and the seething anger that such a situation generates. One would have liked the author to probe into Tagore’s use of the narrative voice in greater detail as a critical strategy on Tagore’s behalf.

The chapter on the use of pathos in delineating the character of the child also is sensitive. Phatik in “The Homecoming” is a fine example of Tagore’s recurrent critique of the social fettering of the independent spirit of the child, an aspect that is located also in “The Tresspass.” Dominic is aware of the finer nuances of Tagore’s prose but one notes that his volume would have been greatly enriched by references to Tagore’s autobiography and his writings on his school at Santiniketan. In fact, one of the major weaknesses of this book is that it does not locate the short stories within the broader grid of Tagore’s writings. Pathos was a major mode in Tagore’s fiction and poetry as well.

The other major bone of contention is the persistent attempt to locate Tagore within the context of Indian Writing in English. One is not clear what relevance this has for the argument of this book. At no point in his probing analysis of Tagore’s stories does Dominic require this rather lengthy introduction. In fact Tagore’s short stories in translation were few in his lifetime. Dominic also veers off in claiming a postcolonial consciousness in Tagore’s stories when he is discussing “Ramkanai’s Folly” strangely locating this in the opposition between materialist values and traditional Indian values. He forgets that a bulk of Tagore’s stories in fact critique claustrophobic tradition that refuses to grant any space for its women and children!

The book also needs to look at the complex interaction between pathos and irony in many of the stories in Tagore and this raises my point about the nuances of the narrative strategy. While the omniscient narrative voice brings out the pathos in the stories, there are intrusive voices and titles that release the irony and thereby the social critique. Thus the pathos never creates a cloying sensation. In this context one need also to look at Tagore’s poems of loss where a deep philosophical realization of human mortality sublimates the pathos. In the short stories the irony balances the dramatic, the social criticism and the pathos. Stories like “Purification” or “The Punishment” bristle with this ironic consciousness.

Dominic s book combines close reading of texts with a lucid and detailed analysis of Tagore’s short stories. The selection of stories is comprehensive. This is a volume that brings out the suggestiveness (“byanjana”) of Tagore’s short stories and will no doubt be well received among scholars and general readers alike.

Dr. Amrit Sen, Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Kolkata. Email: amritsen@gmail.com