In those bewildered primeval times
When the creator, dissatisfied with his creation,
Was smashing it again and again
And restlessly nodding his head in disapproval
The devastating sea
Wrested you, O Africa,
From the eastern hemisphere
And put you in the dungeon of dense dark forests
Where light is miserly and rare.
There in your privacy at leisure
You were seeking the secrets of the unknown
You were deciphering the incomprehensible language
Of the earth’s elements;
Their unseen magic was inspiring you unconsciously
To compose their paeans.
Playing your drums in a wild dance
In your fearsome dress and appearance
You were trying to overcome the terrible.
To the eyes blurred by prejudice and ignorance
It remained unknown
Under the shadows, under your veil
O you veiled one!
You are human.
The civilized came with their shackles
Their nails are sharper than the nails of your wolves
Those hunters of human beings
In their arrogance
They are blinder than your sunless jungles.
In their barbarous lust
They bared the barbarity of their civilization.
The humus of your silent tears
Mixed with your sweat and blood
Made the dust of your forest paths
Clogged in mud
Their boots shod with iron spikes
Left a permanent mark in the annals of your insult.
At that very moment
In all their lands beyond the seas
In prayers to the merciful God
Church bells were ringing;
Children were playing in their mother’s lap;
In their songs
Their poets were singing hymns of the beautiful!
Today when in the western horizon
The twilight hours are calm before a storm
When the beasts are coming out of their caves in swarms
And ominously announcing the day’s end –
Come, O you the poet of the apocalypse
At this imminent darkness of the night
In the last rays of the setting sun
Stand before that insulted land and say,
In the delirium of your ferocity
That will be your civilization’s last sacred massage.
Transcreation of poem 16 from the collection Patraput
by Rabindranath Tagore. It was written at Santiniketan on 28th
Magh (mid-January to mid-February) 1343 BS (1936), three years before the outbreak of the Second World War. The original poem is at http://www.rabindra-rachanabali.nltr.org/node/14222
Comments on this Poem
Thank you Dipankar for your generous compliments.
This is one of your best in my opinion. You have been able to capture the spirit of the original poem with marvelous precision. And sensitively so. No educated Bengali can ever forget the moving lines with which the poem had started: udbhranto shei adim juge//shroshta jokhon nijer proti oshontoshe ...
Quite apart from questions relating to atoning for mistakes committed by forefathers, I find the poem most moving insofar as it captures an artist's dissatisfaction with his own creation. God perhaps was a perfectionist, but his creation was far too enormous even for him to stick to his standards. As a result there were faults in his creativity. Whether his own creations should ask for forgiveness from each other is therefore not the most important point.
The way I look at it, God had perhaps failed to reach his contemplated goal. But he had already started the process and endowed it with a dynamism of its own, a dynamism that he was not able to control himself.
Reading the exchange between Mr. Ashby and you, I was reminded of the following immortal lines from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
"Oh, Thou who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev'n with Paradise devise the Snake:
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken'd--Man's forgiveness give--and take!"
To repeat, this is one of your best "transcreations".
Thank you, dear rdashby, for your comments. I agree with you – value systems change over time and it is wrong to judge past events applying later moral standards. In the present case, however, it must be remembered that that the slavery was wrong and inhuman was realized at the time when it was being widely practiced by the European colonizers – there were not only black slaves from Africa but also white slaves from the European countries. This will be born out by the history of anti-slavery movement. It is also a fact that the 2nd World War had its roots in colonialism and exploitation of the colonies and Tagore was not alone to hold this view. I would request you to please read John Strachey’s Capital which is an abridgement of Marx’s magnum opus. In chapter 31 (Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist) Marx shows the 2nd stage of development of the capitalist society. Commenting on this chapter Strachey wrote – ‘ In Britain the new capitalist class got hold of their initial capital, which set them up in business, not only by taking the land from the people, but also by colonial plunder. Marx lets himself go in describing the process by which the 17th and 18th century merchants plundered the world. The basis of their operations was slavery and the slave trade. Whole continents were pillaged of their inhabitants for the benefit of the British, Dutch, French and Spanish merchants. It was one of the most frightful processes that has ever taken place in human history. It needs a strong stomach to read this chapter. But these are historical facts which cannot be denied, and which it is vital that we should face.’|
Tagore’s poem was written in 1936 when the poet was 75 and Strachey published his book in 1940 when he was 39. Between them there was a gap of more than a generation. Tagore was not wrong. As a human being I apologize to the Africans, others may not prefer to do so.
To ask for forgiveness is for something known to be wrong while committing the action. African slavery was not defined as a wrong, but as a right, in the period of history it was practised. To ask forgiveness is therefore not the issue here, rather the boot is on the other foot: it is the African that should forgive what can only be regretted by a later generation of Europeans who cannot be expected to apologise on behalf of their ancestors; since even if they did, it would not undo the wrong as presently perceived of their past actions by both parties. |
I might add, this a recurring fallacy when dealing with historical actions by one party on another that were considered right at the time. The argument is applied to India, America, and Australia, and the Far East, which countries have been 'exploited' by Europeans in the past, the latter acting at the time in a manner considered right and for the good of their king and country. In the light of today, and democracy, their actions are judged exploitative and inhumane, and their descendants are expected to apologise. No, rather the ex-colonial countries should forgive the actions of European ancestors, and not expect an apology from their blameless descendants in modern times, nor seek to blame the latter for the former's actions so as to extract an apology.
I'm afraid Tagore has fallen into the trap of the fallacy, though he inadvertently refers to the rightness of the motive in the minds of the former colonials in the third stanza commencing 'At that very moment...' Of course, as an Indian with experience of colonial exploitation in the historical memory, he is writing sympathetically, but rather letting his emotions rule his judgment.