Aug 232012

This morning, as I read the blog post ‘Once in a lifetime‘ by our friend AJ Leon, I was reminded of this song by Tagore – যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে ।

AJ has set off on a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip around the world in 1,080 days. At the same time, he announced a competition to help someone else go on an adventure of a lifetime (deadline 23:59 EST tonight) and, to celebrate his 30th birthday, published a collection of essays about changing the world entitled The life and times of a remarkable misfit . It’s a stylishly-presented, free download, which is inspiring reading – and, yes, as I’d noticed before he told me, he does recommend reading Tagore’s poetry.

AJ sets off from Pennsylvania Station

Here is my English translation of the song:

If, hearing your call, no-one comes, then go on alone.
Go on alone, go on alone, go on alone, oh go on alone.

If no-one says anything, dear, dear, oh unlucky one,
If everyone stays with their faces turned away, everyone is afraid –
Then, opening your soul,
Oh say out loud what you are thinking, oh say it alone.

If everyone turns back, dear, dear, oh unlucky one,
If, as you are going along a difficult path, no-one looks back –
Then crush the thorns on the path
Alone under your blood-stained feet.

If no-one holds a light, dear, dear, oh unlucky one,
If in wind and rain, on a dark night, they close their doors –
Then with a thunder-flame of pain
Ignite your own chest, oh burn alone.

In 2001, in a message to a gathering of all living Nobel laureates to mark the 10th anniversary of Aung San Suu Kyi winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she said, “During my years of house arrest I have learnt my most precious lesson from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, many of whose verses reach out to that innermost, elusive land of the spirit that we are not always capable of exploring ourselves.”

This was that poem. As she observed in her message “There are no words of comfort in the poem. No assurances of joy and peace at the end of the harsh journey. There is no pretence that it is anything but evil luck to receive no answer to your call, to be deserted in the middle of the wilderness, to have no one who would hold up a light to aid you through a stormy night. It is not a poem that offers heart’s ease, but it teaches you that a citadel of endurance can be built on a foundation of anguish. How can anybody who has learnt to ignite his heart with the thunder-flame of his own pain ever know defeat? Victory is ensured to those who are capable of learning the hardest lessons that life has to offer.”

Last month, over 20 years after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally able to deliver her Nobel Lecture in Oslo, Norway. On Monday, Burma abolished media censorship.

  9 Responses to “If, hearing your call, no-one comes, then go on alone”

  1. Obhi, thank you so much for the kind words. It is such a wild eyed honor that somewhere on the interwebs I am mentioned in the same 500 word spanse as Tagore. And thank you for introducing me to his work three years ago, it has had a profound influence on my life and my work. Such a beautifully written article, Obhi, thank you for this. 🙂

    • AJ, it’s no more than you deserve ;-). We just finished polishing our translation of Tagore’s dance-drama Chitrangada today – the premiere is less than a month away. It’s theme is women’s emancipation. Such inspiring writing.

      For the premiere, before the film, we’ll be staging The Story of Gitanjali, which you saw in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace in May. This time, being in Brussels, each poem will be read in a different language – we will have supertitling in English and French. As you see, we’re following your recommendation in May to stage it properly and film it ;-).

  2. This is a great post. I had not heard that poem before and in hearing it, I realized the tenor of its message was the exact same tenor that resonated for me in AJ’s manifesto … you have to do what you are here to do, ease of the road be damned. Hopefully people will rise to meet you, support you, help, be of comfort (b/c human souls need such things, we are pack animals. We crave community) But regardless … community that holds you down is no comfort, so walk your path … no matter what. I know that’s not exactly what AJ said, but that’s what I heard. And the message is honest. So now I’m walking … Thank you for this post Obhi … my first introduction to it. I’ll be printing this poem out. #BigLove xo!

    • Thanks, Cris:Gladly. The Wikipedia article about the song/poem currently omits to mention the context in which Tagore wrote it in 1905, although it notes that the poem is one of Tagore’s “Homeland” poems.

      You can find part of the answer in the Wikipedia article about the partition of Bengal along religious lines earlier that year. The other part may be a reference to the school he had founded in 1901 which applied his unconventional educational approach. He was not a great enthusiast of the traditional education system, which he poked fun at in his allegorical tale The parrot’s education.

      Tagore himself was something of a misfit in the traditional education system. Some of the children who came to his school in Santiniketan were misfits in their existing schools (see the special edition of The UNESCO Courier Tagore’s birth centenary in 1961).

  3. Tagore’s own translation of the poem was published in a book called “Poems” published in 1942. (My source:

    If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
    If they are afraid and cower mutely facing
    the wall,
    O thou of evil luck,
    open thy mind and speak out alone.

    If they turn away, and desert you when
    crossing the wilderness,
    O thou of evil luck,
    trample the thorns under thy tread,
    and along the blood-lined track travel

    If they do not hold up the light
    when the night is troubled with storm,
    O thou of evil luck,
    with the thunder flame of pain ignite
    thine own heart
    and let it burn alone.

    • Thanks, Angshuman. This is the version which is also reproduced in the Wikipedia article about the song/poem. It cites as its reference “Choudhury, Subhas (2006) [2004] (in Bengali). Gitabitaner Jagat [The World of Gitabitan] (3rd ed.). Kolkata: Papyrus. p. 740. ISBN 81-8175-087-X.”.

      It’s difficult to describe it as a translation, though. As with Tagore’s English Gitanjali, and as I’ve recently been discussing with Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya and Dr Victor van Bijlert, Tagore’s English versions of his own Bengali poems reflect some reinterpretation by Tagore.

      Dr van Bijlert has translated Tagore’s Gitali from Bengali to Dutch. As he put it elegantly in an e-mail to me yesterday, “… the English Gitanjali should not be treated as a translation from Bengali originals but rather as original English compositions vaguely corresponding to Bengali precursors”. The distinction was already recognised in the Nobel award ceremony speech by Harald Hjärne, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, on December 10, 1913:

      “Since last year the book, in a real and full sense, has belonged to English literature, for the author himself, who by education and practice is a poet in his native Indian tongue, has bestowed upon the poems a new dress, alike perfect in form and personally original in inspiration.”

      Translation is always a compromise, especially when it comes to poetry. While Tagore’s English version of this poem is perhaps easier to understand than the more literal translation I have attempted, I think it loses something compared to the Bengali original. Thank you, in any case, for reproducing Tagore’s own version here so that people can compare the two.

      You may also wish to explore the blog of Ruma Chakravarti in Australia. She has dedicated her blog to translating Tagore’s works into English so that those who do not know Bengali can appreciate them.

      [NB I took the liberty of editing your later correction into your first comment – hope it’s OK.]

  4. I agree on your comment about Tagore’s Engish version. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, typically I find Tagore’s English unappealing. The but I liked this one.

    I liked your version too.

  5. Thanks for the pointer to William Radice.

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