A month after Rabindranath’s return, the country was rocked by a sensational piece of news. A little-known poet of Bengal, named Rabindranath Tagore, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature by the Swedish Academy of Stockholm. The amazing thing was that his work had been considered superior to that of internationally known writers like Anatole France and Thomas Hardy. What was more, he was not only the first Asian to win the prize but the first non-white.
Rabindranath was in Santiniketan when he received the news.
It was a cold but crisp and sunny afternoon of mid-November and he was on his way to Chaupahari Forest in the Minerva motorcar Rathi had forced him to buy immediately on his return. Accompanying him were Rathi and a couple of foreign visitors who had expressed a desire to see the famed sal and piyal trees of Birbhum.
As the car chugged past the post office, a man came running out waving a cablegram. “For you, Karta!” he shouted. Rabindranath took it from him and put it in the pocket of his jobba, meaning to read it later. “From London,” the man continued, “it contains an important message.”
The visitors were intrigued and urged the poet to open it. Rabindranath drew the missive from his pocket and glanced idly at the address. It had been sent to Jorasanko and been redirected by his son-in-law Nagendranath. Tearing it open he ran his eyes over the contents.
“XF PH LONDON PO 14 EASTN LN 19 RABINDRANATH TAGORE 6 DN TAGORE / LANE JORASANKO CALCUTTA
SWEDISH ACADEMY AWARDED YOU NOBEL PRIZE LITERATURE WIRE ACCEPTATION SWEDISH MINISTER”
Rabindranath blinked. He read the lines thrice, wondering if the language was incorrect or if he was, perhaps, misinterpreting the meaning. He had been told by his friend Rothenstein that Thomas Sturge Moore had sent Gitanjali to the Swedish Academy for consideration of the Nobel Prize. But the prospect of winning was so distant it hadn’t even entered his thoughts. Now, holding the telegram in his hands, his mind went blank. Not knowing how to react, he handed it over to his son.
Within hours the news spread all over Bengal. Empire, an English daily of Kolkata, carried a lengthy report the same evening:
“The conferring of the Nobel Prize for literature upon Mr Rabindranath Tagore is an epoch in the history of India and especially of Bengal; it is the first recognition of the indigenous literature of this Empire as a world force; it is the first time an Asiatic has obtained distinction at the hands of the Swedish Academies who control Nobel’s unique legacies; while in addition this year’s recipient is the youngest in fame to obtain an award, for Mr Tagore has only come into his own during his recent visit to England. Again, this is the first occasion upon which the 8000 pound prize has been awarded to a poet who writes in a language so entirely foreign to the awarding country as Bengal is to Sweden but we must not forget that the translations into English by Mr Tagore himself alone bear the stamp of true genius and poetic inspiration...”
Interestingly, being an English newspaper, the editor couldn’t resist the temptation of taking some of the credit. The poet was Indian and India was a part of the British Empire, the most prized among her colonies. The column continued thus:
“A still more striking fact is that the only other British subject to receive the award also developed his talents in India and it is with this Empire that Mr Rudyard Kipling will always be chiefly associated. India can thus claim an extraordinary position in the history of literature...
Heartiest congratulations to Mr Tagore upon this early recognition of his genius by the world. It is not too much to say that not only Bengal but all India will rejoice at the laurels with which he has been crowned.”
There were dissenting voices of course. Who was this Rabindranath Tagore?
Why had no one ever heard of him? Western intellectuals enquired of one another and still remained in the dark. And almost all the newspapers that carried the report unfailingly added the line...”the first time on record that the prize has been given to anybody but a white person”...The Los Angeles Times was particularly scathing. A column written by one Gordon Ray Young was captioned The Ignoble Decision: Hindu Poet Unworthy of Nobel Prize and went on to say:
“The Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to a Hindu poet whose name few people can pronounce, with whose work fewer in America are familiar, and whose claim for that high distinction still fewer will recognise...”
Back in Bengal, of course, it was a different story. Rabindranath came home that evening to a clamouring crowd of teachers and students waving a sheaf of telegrams. “We have great news!” they shouted. “You have won the Nobel Prize.”
His friend CF Andrews detached himself from the throng and, rushing towards him, grabbed his hand. “Robi babu,” he said, “you must let me be the first Englishman to congratulate you.” Rabindranath smiled and nodded. But his thoughts were elsewhere. On another white man. Rothenstein, he thought, I must write to Rothenstein as soon as I can.
But over the next few days he was so besieged by letters, telegrams and people who wanted to offer their congratulations in person that he didn’t find the time. Dashing off a few lines was possible, of course, but he preferred to wait and write a long, intimate letter sharing present thoughts and reminiscences. An indefatigable correspondent, Rabindranath believed in sending personal replies to all those who wrote to him. But what he was met with now was a deluge and he was forced to take the help of a mechanical device. Cyclostyled sheets containing the line “To all those who have rejoiced at the honour shown to me and sent me their congratulations I offer my heartfelt thanks” written in his own hand were sent out in hundreds.
It was only after three days that he found the time to sit down peacefully and write his long-intended letter to Rothenstein. And in it he poured out all his feelings. He wrote:
“The very first moment I received the message of the great honour conferred on me by the award of the Nobel Prize my heart turned towards you with love and gratitude. I felt certain that of all my friends none would be more glad at this news than you. But, all the same, it is a very great trial for me. The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it has given rise to is frightful. It is almost as bad as tying a tin can to a dog’s tail, making it impossible for him to move without creating noise and collecting crowds all along. I am being smothered with telegrams and letters for the last few days and people who have never read a line of my works are loudest in their protestations of joy. I cannot tell you how tired I am of all this shouting, the stupendous amount of its unreality being something appalling. Really, these people honour the honour in me and not myself...”
Excerpted with permission from Daughters of Jorasanko, Aruna Chakravarti, HarperCollins India.