The Professor: Tagore’s tale of unrequited love

Cover of Kabuliwala and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Shawkat Hussain

I recently picked up Shawkat Hussain’s ‘Kabuliwala and Other Stories’, a translation of a few short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. While the experience of reading these stories in the original Bengali edition is priceless, I can’t say I didn’t love the translated versions as well.

Shawkat Hussain taught at the English department of the University of Dhaka from 1973 to 2013, where he became a professor and chairman. Following that, he joined the University of Asia Pacific as the Head of English. He got his PhD degree from Dalhousie University in Canada. Aside from translating other Bengali works of fiction and poetry into English, he is also a translator of the beautiful works of Rabindranath Tagore.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard of Tagore. It might have been my mother who uttered his name. It might have been my father, or perhaps my uncle, my aunt, my cousins, my grandmother. It might have been any one of them, or somebody entirely different — that is not the point. The name Tagore — if we were to retain authenticity, Thakur — has been sung in Bengali culture for the better part of more than a century. We read Tagore, we sing Tagore, we dance Tagore, and we translate his work so that those who do not speak his language — our language — can read, sing, and dance, too. The importance of these translations is immense. It is these translators who make it possible for the rest of the world to experience the bliss that comes with reading Tagore, even if not the authentic pieces.

Of all the stories in this book, ‘The Professor’ stood out to me for a very specific reason — its theme of unrequited love, a subject I am eternally fascinated by. There is more to be understood and analysed from this story besides this one theme, but this is what my fingers were tingling to write about. I read the Bengali 'Adhyapok’ after reading the English translation. Shawkat Hussain says in the preface that he hopes he did a good job ‘translating’ these stories, he hopes he didn’t merely ‘render’ them. I am of the belief that translations almost never authentically showcase the original writing. Constance Garnett’s translations were far from authentic. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s, too, were not exactly authentic. But they’re all enjoyable reads.

This book didn’t give me the authentic Tagore experience, no translation can ever give one the ‘authentic experience’ of the original writer, as the translator always leaves a scent, a mark, a little something of his own, but it did pull me into another world, with the message still being the same, but the writing, not quite.

 I remember this particular story taking me some time to finish, way more time than what a twenty-page story usually takes. I was lost in reading and re-reading certain passages, the words of which still run around in my mind. I don’t know whether the beautiful English passages should be entirely credited to Tagore — though the majority of the credit is undoubtedly his — for the English words themselves contain magic which could not have been produced had this been a word-for-word robotic translation without consideration for beauty. This translation is an ode to Tagore. It is a love letter.

 This beautiful story starts off with the protagonist, a B.A. student by the name of Mahindra, being startled when his position of the distinguished gentleman, the deep-thinker, the ‘smart one’, is challenged by a new professor at his college. While others around him shower him with praise for his writing, this new professor calls him a plagiariser, a thief, and basically ruins his well-built and well-maintained reputation in the college. No sooner than that happens, most students resign from their cult-like following of Mahindra.

Around the same time, Mahindra’s B.A. examinations start and finish, and his father begins insisting he marries. With vengeance in his heart and revenge in his mind, Mahindra goes on a writing retreat to come out with his magnum opus. There he meets Kiron, the light of his life. He falsely believes her to be in love with him as he is with her. His days go by in discussion with Kiron’s father and with anticipation of her love. Near the end, his college results come out and Mahindra discovers he has failed. Funnily enough, unbeknownst to him, Kiron sat the same exams and she passes with flying colours.

What’s more interesting is that she shows up with the professor, smiling from ear to ear. The professor who stole his art, steals his light, and with that, he steals his life.

Mahindra goes back to his hometown, burns the manuscript he was writing, and gets married.

Mahindra’s story is not simply boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy loses girl. Here, the boy doesn’t only lose the girl, he loses all that previously defined him in art and in love.

‘When Kiron used to bring me my cup of tea, I would at the same time receive a cup full of love from her. When I would drink the tea, I would feel that my acceptance of her love was complete, just as her profession of love for me was complete. When Kiron would ask me simply, “Mahindra Babu, surely you are coming again in the morning?” and I would reply, “I will be there by eight,” there is no doubt that much was left unspoken.’

The sheer poetry of these sentences, whether intended or not, is sure to be admired by every fortunate soul that reads them. In re-reading the story, when you know the ending, stumbling upon this specific passage is a gut-punch and a half. The anticipation of love where it never existed, or had ceased to exist, where it was blank — a mere mirage — is a cruel experience to live through and I would argue, a cruel thing to read.

Yes, it is merely unrequited love, a subject the great writers have explored expansively, but it is a matter of the heart, it is a sensitive topic. The pain of being on the worse end of love that is unrequited is injurious to health, both literally and figuratively. There must exist a degree of sadism in one when he writes of unrequited love, perhaps a desire to play with hearts. This sadism has given birth to the great works of literature, so maybe sadism and brilliant writing go hand-in-hand.

‘Just as the evening star shines brighter as the night deepens, so too I felt that with every passing day, Kiron was becoming more and more beautiful and blossoming into full womanhood. It seemed that she occupied the central position in her household and spread a benevolent glow to all around her. This glow lit up the grey hairs on her father’s head, just as it illuminated every single ripple in my heart’s ocean.’

Kiron, in English, means light, beam, or glow. The glow of Glow herself illuminated the ripples of his heart’s ocean. The glow of Glow herself enamoured him, body and soul. Glow herself was who he loved, and Glow herself was the reason behind his turmoil.

Mahindra said in one part of the story, ‘I had so far been living in an imaginary ocean of love; would I survive if that ocean were real?’

He never got an answer. He drowned in his imagination, and the ocean he thought was of love, had really been of loss.

Maybe Kiron did love him. Maybe she thought about him. Maybe she lay awake several nights, deep in thought about this mysterious man. Or maybe his face never crossed her mind in affection

The stakes are high when gambling with the heart. Your dreams of days and nights, the curiosity, the longing, the loss of what seemed to be an arm’s length away— how do you forget it all? Is it time that soothes the ache? Or is it running away to Kolkata and marrying another girl that does? Do trees remind you of her? Or maybe verandahs? Do you ever look at the rays of a bright summer’s sunshine and think of the glow you once saw in her? Do you ever wonder whether the signs you thought were love had indeed, truly, been signs of love?

Maybe Kiron did love him. Maybe she thought about him. Maybe she lay awake several nights, deep in thought about this mysterious man. Or maybe his face never crossed her mind in affection. Maybe she thought him a foolish fellow, a mere admirer, a nuisance, maybe a funny man to tell a funny story about several years down the line. But maybe she did love him. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The thing about unrequited love is that it is filled with such maybes. Maybe this and maybe that, and maybe everything and maybe nothing and maybe, it’s good it never happened.

Also Read