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Making and Remaking of the ‘West’: A Post-colonial understanding of Tagore's Letters from a Sojourner in Europe


Making and Remaking of the ‘West’: A Post-colonial understanding of Tagore's Letters from a Sojourner in Europe

Atish  Das

Visva-Bharati University

West Bengal, India


Travel has always been a pivotal part in Tagore's life and in a way has shaped his approaches regarding literature and culture. As a youth he visited England and came into the ‘Contact Zone’ of the ‘West’ as he witnessed western cultures in relation to the culture of his own. Tagore's ‘Letters From A Sojourner In Europe’, in this regards documents the responses of a thinking coloniser as someone who had a preconceived notion about ‘West’, prior to the journey, his progression upon having a firsthand experience of the Western world and how it forces him to ratify and remake the concept of the ‘West’ counter-culturally. By doing so, in the one hand he ridicules the blind imitation of western customs and dogmas by his fellow Indians as he mockingly discovers a hybrid called ‘Ingo-bongos’, but on the other, he praises the sense of liberty among British men and women which he finds lacking in his native milieu. The nuanced comparison between the class system, household and culture of Britain and Bengal by the youth traveller in lieu of soulful travelogues, resonates a deep Post-colonial yearning, which rejects the finality of the Western narratives and takes a counter-narrative approach to describe the ‘West’ from his own unique positionality.


Keywords: contact zone of cultures; ratification and remaking of the ‘west’; cultural hybrids ‘Ingo-bongos’; post-colonial yearning; counter-narrative approaches

If we take a nuanced look at our history, we could realise that from the time immemorial human beings have an infatuation for the unknown or the lesser known spaces, cultures, people and their ways of life. Travel, in this respect, becomes the only medium to quench that thirst. Whenever there's any travel, there are abundance of stories regarding it, from the factual, formal, journalistic to fictitious, propaganda, informal, parody and other umpteen number of expressions surrounding it and their multitudes of interpretations, make travel narratives a dynamic and ever-growing field of study. A travelogue is never a naive story simply about foreign geographies, rather it takes different forms of covert politics, representational agendas and unique tropes under its ambit, as there's always someone reflecting his/her own version of story through the depiction of exotic spaces that often end up affecting the outlook of the readers, so much so that travelogues become a place of experimentation, involving an endless process of shaping and reshaping the narrative umpteen number of times.

In the heyday of European Imperialism, it became a norm to reshape the foreign lands with western yardsticks, involving gross stereotyping and generalisation. Edward Said in his groundbreaking publication 'Orientalism', shows how this western narrative of Orientalism “....failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience.” (Said 3) and in a way created a literary cul-de-sac, where there was only one brand of representation, by west for the colonies. But in the beginning of the 19th century something interesting started to take place, what Michael H. Fisher recognises as ‘Counterflows of Colonialism’ in his publication of the same name, where he shows “... during mid nineteenth century, many envoys arrived woefully unprepared for what they would encounter in Britain.” (Fisher 246) and what followed thereafter in forms of racial prejudice of accepting, rejecting and counter-culturally modifying the perception of the West by the travellers of the colonies. In this respect, we come across the letters of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), born out of his very first visit to England at the young age of seventeen in 1878 when he accompanied his brother Satyendranath, whose wife Jnanadanandini had already set up a home in Brighton, England. Tagore's stay in England was a little more than a year, living in different locations and having different experiences which in the form of letters, he wrote back home and which were published serially in the Bengali periodical magazine named “Bharati”. These letters were collected under the name of “Yurop Probasir Patra” and later translated as “Letters From a Sojourner in Europe”. These letters are unique in their own rights as here the author not only accepts the falsity of his preconceived notions of the West, but moves a step further by attempting to undo the mistakes by pointing out the thorny details of the West, from the Native sensibilities from the author's distinct positionality.

These letters are marked by the coming of age element as a youth of an imperial colony, having a high respect and an elevated perception of the West, finds himself “deeply disappointed” as the England of his dream doesn't exist anywhere but in his perception. In the second letter Tagore says, “I had hoped to find here, perhaps, the voice of Tennyson….I would be able to hear the speeches of Gladstone, Max Muller expounding on the Vedas….. I had thought that no matter where I went, I would find men, women and children engrossed in the joys of intellect.” which is definitely a result of the one way flow of colonial representation of itself, in unrealistically pompous terms which in the words of Edward W. Said, “The result is usually to polarize ... the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner more Western” (Said 1). But at the same time, in Tagore we find an attempt to thwart the colonial influence as he seeks to remake England in his own understanding, generated based on empirical data in front of him. The young author by not succumbing to the hegemonic Colonial framework of his time, Tagore's attempt finds a meaning in the lines of Post-colonialism, as he notes down with deep caution and sympathy, “The working class of this country do not seem to have any humanity left in them - they seem to be placed only above animals. When I see their faces…... I shudder at the sight….” By showing this masked unspoken of the coloniser, Tagore unveils the mask of rational, liberal and the much appreciated “Human face Divine” that often colonists try to show themselves with and the animal like existence of the working class in the heart of the industrial city pushes forward the mission of decoloniality, which is achieved by the author as he sends these letters to his homeland and makes his learned populace aware of the realities that imperial forces whitewash under their coats of enlightenment.

To have a critical understanding of the Post-colonial undertones in Tagore's letters, one can cite Mary Louise Pratt’s study, as published under the title 'Imperial Eyes : Travel Writing and Transculturation', where she brings the process of 'Transculturation' and 'contact Zone' in her quest to define the subliminal space born out of the interaction between a coloniser and a colonised. Pratt sees 'Contact Zone' as, “ spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths…” and therefore the process of Transculturation becomes a way for the marginal groups to “... select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant metropolitan culture.” (Pratt). Tagore's letters in this way paves a way for his own opinions, with the limited opinions he had in his hand readily available by the imperial propaganda machinery, but he transcends this when he finds England pretty much a mixed place as he claims, “I have never seen anywhere such a constant struggle for livelihood as in this country.” In one of Tagore letters we find an incident of a working class boy ripping apart a horse's tongue solely for the amusement and the traveller's criticism of “such beastiality” is in fact a covert criticism of British Imperialism that has done the same thing all over the world that the working class boy had done to that horse. Tagore's letters in this way debunk the humane face of the ‘West’ and by doing this, he renounces and remakes an alternative version of the 'West', upon coming into the 'Contact Zone' of their cultures. Countering the colonial narrative for Tagore becomes a way to subvert the hegemonic power structure and by breaking the cultural cul-de-sac he not only remakes the West for his own self, but tries to bring out the socio-cultural realities of the colonisers before the hundreds and thousands of the readers of his letters, at his home turf.

Tagore's critique in these letters are never one sided, as he never overcompensates in his quest to revise the errors planted by Colonial narratives. Tagore at once criticizes English societies for class system and superficialities but adjacent to his criticism, we also find him praising the sense of liberty and wisdom among certain classes of the English societies. But the letters are as much about the Western citizens as they are about his fellow countrymen, who had boarded the ship with the young traveller. He calls them ‘Ingo-bongos’, the people who are natively Indian, but as they see English people and their Cultures before them, they aggressively try to imitate that blindly, without understanding the drawbacks in this cultural mimicry. In the ship, Tagore finds them cornered by their preconceived fears, as they live in an existence that's quite similar to the definition of 'Double-consciousness' developed by the famous American theorist W.E.B Du Bois, where one looks ‘ one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” (The Soul of Black Folks). These senses are amplified with their constant inner fears that, “What if we committed a blunder? What if we were scolded by the gora captain and the gora sailor? After all, we were in their protection -- that they had allowed us darkies to purchase tickets was kindness enough on their part!” which satirically Tagore speaks for the breed of 'Ingo-bongos'. The critique here is of the submissive nature of his fellow countrymen, who in order to be Englishmen, sacrifices their identity, integrity and even the humanity of their own selves, so much so that now they're neither Bengali, not English, but a pale shadow of both, which shows that what colonial hegemonic structure could do, if one doesn't counter it. The lack of individuality can be seen in Tagore's comparison, where he says, “....they (Ingo-bongos) are just like children. When they see a book with its cover decorated with illustrations in gold, they stare at it in a gaping awe.”  This superficiality and hypocrisy among the natives regarding their cultural standpoint are pivotal part of colonial project of deculturation, which is here countered by Tagore through his Transculturation, with which he divides Englishmen and women as per their classes to prove that good and bad are scattered among all cultures. Therefore, the narrative is essentially a Post-colonial one, which celebrates and critiques certain aspects of both the West & the East, for different reasons, without conforming to any distinct politics.

As these letters show us, Tagore, from his youth was an adamant supporter of women liberty and education and although much of his romantic idealism regarding England and English culture fell flat in the hands of reality, a handful kept inspiring the author during his stay. Some of these experiences he writes back home, which includes praises for the cleanliness among British people, the 'Spirit of Socializing' and the openness among the genders. Tagore sees, balls and parties playing a great role regarding the dissemination of knowledge among upper and middle class women, they read novels without feeling the need to have a dictionary at their side, they meet with men without any inherent shyness, which Tagore finds lacking in his own culture, where the house of a ‘nautch-girl’ is frowned upon by the society and a sense of ‘Reticence’ is prevalent among the genders. The author, citing English society as an example measures his own society, which proves the reformist bend of mind of the young traveller, who doesn't only work towards deconstructing any one milieu, but compares and contrasts both, to have a deeper understanding of the two, in pretty much the way which can be interpreted as Post-colonial due to its defiance against any singular narrative, propagated by Colonial narratives and philosophy.

The dynamism is a very prevalent aspect of Tagore's literary, critical and political oeuvre, where he has changed his outlook regarding certain aspects throughout his life. His “Letters From a Sojourner in Europe” bears a testimony of this phenomenon, which consists of the gradual changes of the young traveller from the Indian colony as his expectations fall from romantic admiration to bitter criticism, but subsequently he transforms into rational criticism and further cultural reshaping. The West therefore becomes closer to the reality in the hands of Tagore than the Imperial propagandists, who neither mentioned the plight of the working class or the superficialities of their own homeland. In one hand, Tagore's narrative mirrors the good and bad aspects of the coloniser, but it doesn't write off the necessity to rectify the hegemonic strains of Colonialism and that's why he critiques the degenerated hybrid of Ingo-bongo, whom he sees like a disease spreading over the English colonies. Among the circumstances as these, Tagore sees an urgent need of not only to make the West of his own concepts upon getting depressed at the prosaic realities of the England, but to remake it as a counter to the very imperialistic agenda that has turned people into cultural aliens like 'Ingo-bongos'. Therefore, the Post-colonial urge in Tagore's letters not simply rises from the critique or praise of the West, but it finds its origin from the wrong depiction of the East and the West by the imperial forces, who have dictated the terms for a long time and why it's as a practice is highly unsustainable. This gives rise to more enmity, falsehood and cultural stereotyping as both the parties get an unrealistic understanding of each other, without acknowledging the human responses of each other. The letters of Tagore thrive on this opportunity to remake the West, as a form of resistance against the public perception and between this cultural turmoil around representational politics, one can find a deeper understanding of “Letters From a Sojourner in Europe” in the lines of the recent postcolonial studies, which opens this nineteenth century letter collection to a plethora of interpretations.

Works Cited

Tagore, Rabindranath, Letters from a Sojourner in Europe, Visva-Bharati, Kolkata, 2008.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Fisher, Michael H. Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain 1600-1857. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1868-1963, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago, A. G. McClurg, 1903.