The pioneer of short story
Although stories and tales are as old as the primitive man, the short story as literary genre is an out and out a 19th-century product of the western world. Critics trace out the influence of Homer\'s epics, ‘Iliad’ and ‘Ulysses’ and also Boccaccio\'s ‘Decameron’ and Chaucer\'s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ on short stories. And Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekov, Guide Maupassant and O Henry are acknowledged a
Although stories and tales are as old as the primitive man, the short story as literary genre is an out and out a 19th-century product of the western world. Critics trace out the influence of Homer's epics, ‘Iliad’ and ‘Ulysses’ and also Boccaccio's ‘Decameron’ and Chaucer's ‘The Canterbury Tales’ on short stories. And Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekov, Guide Maupassant and O Henry are acknowledged as the pioneers of the modern short story.
Many writers like EM Forster and Alexander Poe acknowledged the influence of ‘Arabian Tales’ on the modern short story but very few critics and writers of the west realised the importance of the influence of ‘The Ramayana’, ‘The Mahabharata’, ‘Kathasarithsagara’, ‘Brihathkathamanjari’ and ‘Panchatantra’ on it. It is all due to the negligence accorded to the short story of India and to its Indian masters. Rabindranath Tagore's stories are the casualties of that mistake.
Rabindranath Tagore was 52 years younger to Poe and Poe wrote many of his important stories during 1832 and 1849. But Chekov's stories were written during 1880 and 1900, Mauppassant and O Henry also wrote during the same period and hence they are all the contemporaries to Tagore.
Tagore wrote his first story, ‘Bikarini’, in 1877 in his 16th year and wrote more than 100 short stories in addition to many sketches - unrhymed prose poems broken up into long and short passages, which he included in a book called ‘Lipika’. He wrote stories throughout his life and his final story, ‘Chitrakar’, was penned in 1929, when he was 68 years old.
The most important type of short story which is regarded as a typical Tagorean short story is called a “Lyrical short story”. Tagore was an amazing creative writer, who wrote around 2,000 poems, more than two dozens of plays, around the same number of novels, more than 100 short stories, a huge volume of prose that includes all varieties of writings like literary criticism, diaries, reminiscences, travelogues and philosophical treatises.
(Besides these he did more than 2,000 paintings and devised an original and highly individualistic music tradition called Rabindra sangeet. The three thalas he devised are named after him. Edward Thompson rightly observed that it is the life work of a Titan.) But Tagore claims that he was fundamentally a poet and so the poet in him shaped the other genres he attempted. Hence, the lyrical story is a natural product of Tagore's genius.
Many of these lyrical stories, ‘The Post Master’, ‘The Castaway’, ‘The Home Coming’, ‘The Cabuliwallah’, ‘Subha’, ‘My Lord’, ‘The Baby’, ‘Mashi’, ‘The Hungry Stones’, etc, belong to a period during which time he composed poems like ‘Golden Boat’, ‘Chaithali’ and ‘Kalpana’ and plays like ‘Chithra’.
The stories of this period also possess the same intense concentration, haunting suggestiveness, simplicity and reticence of expression in, supreme and all-absorbing harmony, enchanting music and love for nature. The themes of these stories are simple and they contain a few incidents. They are all created around a single mood or a feeling.
In these stories, he portrays true pathos and sublimity of human relationships. They derive their lyrical quality by being the expressions of the primeval yearning of human nature which struggles to adjust to the norms of the society. They also depict the inseparable contact between nature and human nature.
Tagore portrays a mystical relationship between the mind of the man and nature and the way that they act and react with each other. In the story Subha, the entire society assumes that the mute girl has no human feelings as she cannot speak but she has a perfect communication with nature.
The murmur of the brook, the voice of the village folk, the songs of the boatmen, the crying of the birds and rustle of trees mingled and were one with trembling of her heart. It is justifiable to say that the Russian classics have candour of the soul, the French have the candour of mind and Tagore's stories have candour of feelings. And all his lyrical stories deal with the characters belonging to the lower strata of the society and they never deviate the track of realism.
While dealing with the social evils Tagore can be more pungent and also ironical. He portrays the pathetic flights of the poor and women perceptively and realistically. Many of his women characters like Kusum in ‘The Babus of Nayanjore’, Kumo in ‘Vision’, Gouri in ‘Saved’ and Surabala in the story named after her demand a comparative study with the immortal women characters of Sarathchandra Chatterji.
The story, ‘Wife's Letter’, written in the form of a letter, reflects the agony of a woman who realises that the purpose and meaning of the life of a woman do not lie in being a wife alone. She boldly denounces the hypocrisy of middle-class life and declares that she knows that it is cowardice to commit suicide. Tagore is not satisfied with the presentation of the world around and he tries to probe deep into the innermost recesses of the human psyche in many of his stories.
Following the tradition of ‘Panchatantra Tales’ and ‘Buddhajataka Tales’ Tagore wrote many sketches, which are also called gulpikas. A wrong man in the worker's paradise is a satire on the negligence of arts in a communist country. Tagore had great respect for communism and after visiting Russia he declared that he was extremely happy to find at least a single country working for the welfare of the common man. But he insisted that freedom of expression is important as it helps the art to flourish. He makes a scathing attack on the contemporary education system in Parrot's Training.
The novelettes Tagore wrote are considered longer short stories by some critics. Among them ‘Master Mashi’, ‘Cloud and Sun’, ‘The Conclusion’, ‘The Garden’, ‘Farewell’, ‘My Friend’ and ‘The Broken Nest’ are very much popular. ‘The Broken Nest’ portrays the breaking of a family due to the incompatibility in the temperaments of the wife and husband.
Thus, Tagore chose a comparatively young genre, experimented with it in all possible ways and made it perfect by ingeniously Indianising it. He successfully achieved what Poe called the unity of effect, the transportation of the impression to the mind of the reader by the writer as effectively as he felt it.
His achievement as a short story writer had to suffer under the shade of his extraordinary popularity as a poet. But he is undoubtedly a pioneer of the short story to be placed on the pedestal along with Chekov, Maupassant and O Henry. It is high time to realise that he would have occupied the same prestigious place had he written only short stories and nothing else.