In September of 1924, Rabindranath Tagore received an invitation to attend Peru’s commemorative centennial celebration. A hundred years before, led by Simon Bolivar, Peru had defeated Spanish Colonial forces to become an independent nation. Peruvians wanted the Bengali Nobel Laureate to participate in the festivities marking the historical event.
Tagore, 63, had recently returned to India from an exhausting four month trip to China and Japan. He needed rest but with wanderlust in his blood, the poet found the invitation from Peru irresistible. With family members and friends to give him company part of the way, Tagore sailed on the ship Haruna-Maru from Colombo for Europe. The Diary of the Westbound Traveler is a work from this period, along with several poems he composed on the Haruna-Maru.
From France, with Leonard Elmhirst as his secretary, Tagore boarded the Andes bound for Argentina. He had met the idealistic Elmhirst in the United States in 1920. Moved by Tagore’s vision of rural development, Elmhirst had raised money from wealthy American patrons and came to Shantiniketan the following year to organize Rabindranath's village projects.
Tagore fell ill on the Andes within a few days and became bedridden. But the poems kept flowing from his pen – “Stranger,” “Absent-Minded,” “Hope,” “Wind,” “Dream,” “Sea,” and many others. After three weeks at sea, on November 6, the ship docked at Buenos Aires. Flu had severely weakened the poet; further traveling was out of question. Without prolonged rest he would be risking his life, doctors told him. Reluctantly, he had to give up on the invitation from Peru.
The year 1914 was one of the darkest in Victoria Ocampo's life. Two years before, at the age of twenty two, she had married the man of her dream, anticipating a life of respect and love and free from dogma and prejudice. She had reasons to dream, for in Monaco Estrada she thought she had found a sensitive, handsome young man who considered her an equal and approved of her passion for literature and art. Although born into wealth and privilege, she was not immune to the prevailing social custom where women were treated as chattels, a legacy of Spanish Colonialism that was sustained and supported by Argentina's Catholic Church. For a woman yearning to break free from male injustice meant social ostracism and disgrace. The strong willed and impulsive Victoria had felt like a captive even in her parents’ home. Life with Estrada promised freedom and creativity.
Barely had her honeymoon begun when Victoria’s dream was shattered, for the man of her dream turned out to be as just as tyrannical and chauvinistic. She had traded one form of captivity with another. For over a decade Victoria would live through this loveless and sometimes violent marriage, fearful of hurting her parents, until finally one day she summoned the courage to obtain a legal separation.
In 1914, however, she had begun to despair of life. With no one to turn to and none in whom to confide her sorrow, she came across a copy of André Gide’s French translation of Gitanjali, a collection of poems by a Bengali poet named Rabindranath Tagore who had won the Nobel Prize for literature the year before. The depth and beauty of what she read stunned Victoria. The ray of hope emanating from those poems pierced the darkness around her. The spiritual energy in such lines as
... Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it
Into the deepest fullness. Let me for once feel
that lost sweet touch in the allness of the universe ...
lifted her above her personal tragedy. In the illuminating biography, Victoria Ocampo Against the Wind and the Tide, the author Doris Meyer quotes Victoria many years later to describe the effect Tagore's poetry had on her:
"I remember the moment and the exact spot where this took place. I was leaning against a white marble fireplace in a room upholstered in light gray silk. The house no longer exists. Neither do those I was afraid of hurting, or those who were hurting me. Nor does the poet who was bringing me the gift of tears, as not even the closest friend would have been able to do. The images which now live only in my memory will cease to exist together with it, as easily, as irrevocably as all that has preceded them into nothingness.
But the Gitanjali over which I was weeping will remain. "
Not knowing who he was and separated by barriers of language and culture, Tagore nonetheless became her spiritual companion. She had found hope, a reason for living.
That Tagore would pass through Buenos Aires on his way to Peru became known in Argentina in September of 1924. The possibility of meeting in person the poet who had saved her a decade earlier from mental and spiritual abyss could be a momentous event in her life. In preparation, she began reading as much of Tagore's translated works as possible. She had help, for in one of those mysterious ways in which an artist can touch the souls of receptive readers in distant shores, Tagoré had become a major literary figure in South America at the time, due mostly to the translations of his work in Spanish by a remarkable literary couple named Juan Ramón and Zenobia Camprubi, who translated twenty-two books by Tagore between 1914 and 1922. The translations also influenced other major literary figures, including José Ortega y Gassett, a leading Spanish intellectual of the time, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda in Chile, and Octavio Paz in Mexico.
When the Andes arrived at Buenos Aires on November 6, no one was more prepared to receive Tagore on Argentinean soil than Victoria Ocampo.
Complete rest in Buenos Aires upon embarkation, the doctors had advised Tagore, but where? Victoria was quick to seize the opportunity. Renting a villa named “Miralrio” (River View) in the suburb of San Isidro, not far from the Villa Ocampo where she lived, and selling a diamond tiara as payment, Victoria offered its peace and solitude to Tagore and Elmhirst. Gratefully they accepted. Victoria’s own household staff was to care for Tagore but she was too shy and awestruck to reside in the rented villa herself.
For two months, Tagore convalesced at San Isidro, his home away from home. The villa was situated on the bank of the River Plate and the view from its balcony was spectacular. In Victoria’s own words:
I had instinctively led Tagore to that balcony immediately upon his entering Miralrio, certain that if he was to take anything away on leaving it, it would be this: the memory of the landscape that would meet his eyes morning and evening, with its changing light. That landscape was the only gift worthy of him.
The flowing river and the lush trees and flowers of San Isidro healed Tagore’s body and nourished his spirit. The three of them, Tagore, Victoria, and Elmhirst, took long walks along the bank of the Plate. In Victoria, Rabindranath saw a woman of uncommon beauty and kindness, whose intelligence, sensitivity and spiritual yearning left the deepest impression in the poet. He was thirty years older than her; the odes he wrote to her "Guest," "Fear," and "Last Spring", to name only three were suffused with tenderness and poignancy. Yet there was also a certain tension between the three, as suggested by Elmhirst in a letter written to his fiancée in England:
Our hostess (V.O.) was quite – next to the poet himself – the most difficult person I ever came across … Besides having a keen intellectual understanding of his books, she was in love with him – but instead of being content to build a friendship on the basis of intellect, she was in a hurry to establish the kind of proprietary right over him which he absolutely would not brook … she was a bundle of prides, intellectual, aristocratic, and physical, against which, and their ferocious hold upon her nature, she was constantly at war. For her, then, I was either bridge or barrier, obstacle or convenience as occasion turned out …
During the Tagore birth centenary in 1961 in India, Victoria herself wrote of her relationship with Tagore: “Little by little he partially tamed the young animal, by turns wild and docile, who did not sleep, dog-like, on the floor outside his door, simply because it was not done.”
After two months at San Isidro, Tagore began to feel restless. Driven by an imaginary sense of duty that he was to regret later, he and Elmhirst left Buenos Aires on January 4, 1925 for Europe on board the Julio Cesaro, in staterooms arranged for them by Victoria. But Tagore could not forget her. Memory of Victoria continued to haunt and inspire him in his later years. He composed at least two songs around her: I know you, O maiden from a faraway land! Your dwelling is across the sea ... and On the green bank by the blue sea, I have seen the incomparable while passing by ... From the Julio Cesaro, he wrote to her: “… I believe that your love may help me in my fulfillment … I have lost most of my friends because they asked me for themselves, and when I said I was not free to offer myself, they thought I was proud. I have deeply suffered from this over and over again – and therefore I always feel nervous whenever a new gift of friendship comes in my way. But I accept my destiny and if you also accept it we shall forever remain friends.” And on the eve of his death in 1941, sixteen years after bidding farewell to Victoria in Buenos Aires, he wrote:
"How I wish I could once again find my way to that foreign land where waits for me the message of love! The dreams of yesterday will wing their way back and, fluttering softly, build their nest anew. Sweet memories will restore to the lute its lost melody ... Her language I knew not, but what her eyes said will forever remain eloquent in its anguish. "
Neither could she forget him. Tagore had invited her to visit him in India but time and distance proved insurmountable. Nevertheless, she corresponded regularly with him, meeting him once more in Paris in 1930 where she organized an exhibit to introduce to the art world Tagore’s unusual drawings and sketches she had discovered at San Isidro. She followed India's struggle for independence with keen interest, exchanging lively ideas with him about how to expel the British Raj from the subcontinent. Through it all, she always gratefully acknowledged his deep, steadying influence on her.
Victoria Ocampo went on to become a leader in the movement to secure women’s rights in her country and emerged as a star in the literary circles of Latin America. As an ardent feminist she was clearly ahead of her time. As essayist translator, her work has been compared to the leading twentieth century women of letters. In 1931 she founded the Spanish literary magazine Sur (South). As its editor, guiding spirit and financial backer, she transformed it into the foremost magazine of its kind in Latin America. Through its pages, she launched the career of Jorgé Luis Borges and introduced to her countrymen such writers as Gabriela Mistral, T. S. Eliot, Octavio Paz, André Gide, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus and many others. By publishing neglected writers and taking on unpopular subjects, her name became synonymous with literary integrity and freedom of thought. She was jailed in 1953 for lashing out against the regime of Juan Peron. International pressure forced the dictator to release her from prison after twenty six days. In 1977 she was elected to the Argentine Academy of Letters, the first woman to be accorded the honor.
The reputation of Argentina’s “Queen of Letters” has grown steadily since her death in 1979 at the age of 88. It is likely that Victoria Ocampo will be remembered long after another Argentine, Eva Peron, has become a footnote in that country’s history.
Tagore composed sixty one poems on his voyage to and from South America in 1924, including twenty six in Argentina that are considered among the most lyrical and evocative of his poems. To these were added sixteen more that he had composed earlier that year and the collection was published as Puravi, which means ‘Easterner’ and is also the name of an evening raga in Indian classical music. To whom did Tagore dedicate Purabi? To “Vijaya,” the Bengali name he chose for the woman “who filled my days abroad with grace and beauty,” Victoria.