Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tagore for Tough Times

To curb want and to do without are the lessons of the time. When families are forced to sell heirloom on eBay to put food on the table, we know that 'grim' is an inadequate word to describe their plight. Many Americans clinging onto their homes are wondering not where the next mortgage payment will come from but whether they can pay this month's water bill.

Affluent times, like history, may repeat but clearly a fundamental shift is occurring in our consumer mentality. When materialism takes over, contentment flees and foreclosure looms. To live on borrowed money, as we are discovering, is a lot like living on borrowed time.

As the economy crumbles, some are finding solace in literature. One whose voice speaks across time is that of the Bengali mystic poet Rabindranath Tagore (1841-1961). Tagore won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913 for his collection of poems called Gitanjali (Song Offerings). In these 157 poems, he created a vision of spirituality and transcendence in which fulfilment is to be found in life’s unadorned pleasures.

As in all great poetry, there is also in them an undercurrent of tension arising out of our endless wants and desires. But in profoundly moving verses Tagore tells us how such tension can be resolved and how we can find the authentic treasures of life buried beneath fame and material well-being.

There is one poem in particular - number 2 in Gitanjali (the poems are without titles) - that resonates for me in these difficult times. Although many authors, including Tagore, translated Gitanjali into English, none come close to capturing the magical, mysterious appeal of the poems in their original Bengali.

Here is my translation of the poem, the emphasis being more on its essence than on the literal. I hope the poem will resonate for you as it does for me everytime I read it.

I want with fierce desires
But you save me by denying me
This tough love lifts my life.

What you give me unasked

This sky, light, mind, body, life
Are plenty
Day after day you test me
To make me worthy of your gifts
Saving me from excessive desires.

Sometimes forgetful, sometimes aimless
I try to follow you
But you are cruel
Hiding the way you do from me.

Yet I know this is your grace
You turn me away only because you wish to accept me
This is how you make me complete
So that I may become worthy of you
Saving me from incomplete longings.

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