It is hard for people alien to Bengal to understand the remarkable influence Rabindranath has on the life and thought of its people. The immense range of his writing – his novels, plays, essays, stories, songs and especially poems – seem to illumine every facet of existence and his words find echo in the hearts of his readers.
To say that I loved the poem would be an understatement. It is a simple and humble poem that recognizes the sense of betrayal and friendlessness we often feel, then makes a gentle resolve to stand on one’s legs, not bend on one’s knees. It seems to come from a deep feeling of pain and a deeper understanding of what one can do about it. You can grovel in misery and pray for relief. Or, as Buddha said, you can take charge of yourself and squarely face your agony.
I re-read the poem and loved it even more. To the devout, it may seem a prayer to the divine. To the less devout, it is an invocation to one’s inner strength. Either way, it is a lovely poem. I carried it in my heart and I spoke of it to my friends. One of them was Girish, who had recently lost a sister to a tragic accident. He wanted me to read the poem to him more than once, and then asked me to explain some phrases, as his knowledge of Bengali was limited. It was Girish who then suggested that I translate the poem in English, so that others could also enjoy it.
Thirty years later I was a US diplomat in Haiti, trying to save a few refugees from among the human rights activists the ruling military junta was hunting down. I received great help from a brave Belgian priest, Father Hugo Trieste, who daily risked his life to assist people running for their lives. Sipping coffee in his modest home one day, I met Sister Ann, a nun who worked with him. Sister Ann was from the Philippines and was glad to hear that I had greatly enjoyed the five years I had earlier spent in her country.
Two weeks later Sister Ann invited me and the Father to her modest apartment for lunch. The lunch was memorable for the pleasant conversation and companionship we had in a very unpleasant time. It became even more memorable when I noticed a paper stuck on the dining room door. I got up to take a look and read a poem.
I was seeing my own translation after more than three decades. I knew it was my translation because, after much rumination and discussion, I had kept the double ‘never’ in the last line, because I felt it best conveyed the force of the original. I knew of no other translator who had done it the same way.
I asked Sister Ann how she had the poem. She said she had read it in the home of a French nun, who had seen it on the desk of a Belgian priest and got a copy. Sister Ann had liked it and asked for a copy. She stuck it on the dining room door, for she wanted to see it every day. She had no idea where the poem came from, no more than the French nun who had given it to her.
I could only surmise that Father Detienne had passed on my translation to someone who had liked the poem.
Evidently my translation had traveled far and touched a few hearts.