Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Mashi and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore

A modern Indian mix of romance, social realism, and a dash of horror
Rabindranath Tagore
In 1913, India’s Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Calcutta, Tagore wrote most of his works in his native Bengali language and was prolific in both poetry and prose. Mashi and Other Stories, a collection of his short stories, was published in English translation in 1918.

The 14 stories collected here depict life in modern India in the early 20th century. Appropriate for this time period, Tagore’s writing style displays characteristics of an early modernism, though mixed with more traditional romantic and realist storytelling techniques. Tagore’s depictions of India feel a century ahead of those of British author Rudyard Kipling, who was also born in India, despite the fact that Kipling won the Nobel just six years prior to Tagore. Kipling would ladle on the local color to emphasize the exoticism of India. Tagore’s stories, on the other hand, may touch upon social issues unique to their setting like arranged marriages, income inequality, or the plight of widows in Indian society, but ultimately they succeed by emphasizing the universality of human experience through themes of love, honor, family, fidelity, loss, and regret that strike a chord in readers of all cultures.

The best story in the collection, “The Supreme Night,” is an excellent example of this. A young man grows up with dreams of becoming an important lawyer and freedom fighter. In his self-important zeal, he passes on the marriage arranged for him by his parents. The story then becomes a very sincere and moving tale of regret as the protagonist realizes the opportunity for a happy life that he has squandered. Arranged marriage features in quite a few of the stories. In “The River Stairs,” a young woman is married and widowed by the age of eight. “Subha” is about a mute girl who enjoys a simple life on her parents’ farm, until her parents decide to marry her off. Inheritance is another common plot element, as in “The Elder Sister,” in which an adult married woman loses her family’s estate to a newborn brother. For the most part, not much prior knowledge about India is required to enjoy these stories, but there is one notable exception. “The Trust Property” is really only understood after reading a closing explanatory footnote provided by the English editor. Elsewhere, Indian terms and customs are clarified by brief footnotes when needed.

A few of Tagore’s stories wander into the horror genre. In “The Skeleton,” for example, a former medical student listens to the reminiscences of the spirit of the anatomy skeleton he studied in school. Murder and suicide factor into a few others. The horror elements are not so much chilling, like the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, but rather more melancholic, like the works of French writer Théophile Gautier. Tagore is a very capable and eloquent writer, but endings are his weakness. Many of the stories here suffer from disappointing and inadequate conclusions. Often a tale will end with an abrupt twist followed by a vague resolution, leaving the reader to wonder what just happened. The feeling of melancholy is not confined to the horror tales but permeates the entire book, resulting in depressing endings that just leave the reader feeling bummed. If there is a sad way to end a story, Tagore will find it.

Overall, Mashi and Other Stories is a fine collection but fails to live up to Nobel-level expectations. Moments of emotional power and literary genius are mixed with instances of predictable and formulaic romance. There are almost as many misses as hits in the collection. Even so, for lovers of classic fiction the book is an enjoyably refreshing change from the European literary tradition.

Stories in this collection
The Skeleton 
The Auspicious Vision 
The Supreme Night 
Raja and Rani 
The Trust Property 
The Riddle Solved 
The Elder Sister 
The Postmaster 
The River Stairs 
The Castaway 
My Fair Neighbour

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