When Tagore’s poem got the Indira touch

Published : Dec 14, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Indira Gandhi at her desk in 1984, with a portrait of Tagore on the wall.

Indira Gandhi at her desk in 1984, with a portrait of Tagore on the wall.

Indira Gandhi’s diligent edits on an English translation of the iconic poem “Ekla Chalo Re” reveal her latent literary sensibilities.

Digging through the papers of your long-deceased parents evokes many poignant memories, and bouts of sneezing due to the dust, lint, and mustiness that creep into even well-sealed boxes. But such excavations yield some gems that deserve to be shared with others, especially when it concerns the preoccupations of a Prime Minister of India in the days before her death, her enduring engagement with an inspirational poem-song by the polymath Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, and an interaction with one of India’s leading sculptors, and with her principal wordsmith. The last-mentioned was my father, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who had served as Indira Gandhi’s press adviser and principal speech writer from the day she took office in 1966 to the moment she was assassinated during her walk to an interview in her garden with Peter Ustinov (with whom my father was waiting on that fateful morning).

LISTEN: Indira Gandhi’s diligent edits on an English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s iconic poem-song “Ekla Chalo Re” reveal her latent literary sensibilities.

The file, rose petals and photo.

The file, rose petals and photo.

Safely stored in a small box was a taupe-coloured file that distinguished itself from sarkari mundaneness by its fine velvet cover. Opening the file, I found that its transparent plastic sleeves housed a couple of fine portraits of Indira Gandhi. I realised the significance of these on seeing in one of the sleeves some faded dried petals over a chit of paper on which my mother had helpfully inscribed “Rose Petals // Mrs. - G”. These were presumably the petals that she had collected when she had gone to see the body of the slain Prime Minister lying in state. I conjecture that the photographs were among the candidate portraits considered by her advisers for enlargement to place behind her body. One of these portraits has her seated at her desk, with a portrait of her guru and mentor Tagore on the wall behind her.

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In the last month of her life, Indira Gandhi, my father, and the noted sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri had several interactions. One of the last executive actions of Indira Gandhi, on October 30, 1984, was to approve the appointment of Sankho Chaudhuri as the Chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi. While a veteran politician Ram Niwas Mirdha had won the most votes in an election for the post, he had the good sense and cultural sensibilities to suggest that one respected artist should succeed another as Chairman of the arts academy.

Approval for the appointment of Sankho Chaudhuri as Chairperson of Lalit Kala Akademi, October 30, 1984.

Approval for the appointment of Sankho Chaudhuri as Chairperson of Lalit Kala Akademi, October 30, 1984.

But a more interesting interaction that took place over the month centred on a translation of Tagore’s memorable song, Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe, that contains the memorable phrase “Ekla Chalo”, which inspired Indira Gandhi. However, the translations of this poem did not seem to satisfy her exacting standards. My father had on several occasions said that Indira Gandhi worked tirelessly on her speeches, and would have made an excellent subeditor. He also maintained that her intellect and education were of the highest calibre, with leading writers and philosophers like Iris Murdoch and André Malraux seeking out her company. How particular she could be about words and their meaning can be seen here.

The story begins on October 2 (as good a day as any for this task) when she seems to have asked Sankho Chaudhuri to look up the authoritative translation (the one by the poet Kshitis Roy), which was then conveyed to my father.

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 alone.

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.

Translated by Kshitis Roy, Published in Anthology of One hundred Songs of Rabindranath Tagore by Sangeet Natak Akademi (1961).

Translation by Kshitis Roy.

Translation by Kshitis Roy.

My father marked up the poem, replacing the words “answer not” with a suggestion of “come not in response”, and underlined the thrice repeated appellation “O thou of evil luck”, with a note “O thou of evil luck” is not the best equivalent of “O Abhagé”. “O Hapless One” or “O luckless one” would be more apt.

Editors at work.

Editors at work.

Mrs Gandhi’s pencil-work starts on this typed sheet. She scribbles “If no one listens to your call, you walk alone” near the first line. Then she strikes through “they are” in the second line and writes “if afraid, they cower mutely”. She accepts her speechwriter’s suggestion of “O hapless one”, but in lower case. She strikes out the archaic “thy” with a more modern “your”.

In the next verse, she decides that the “when crossing the wilderness” phrase should be moved up and a comma can be dispensed with. She nixes the phrase “trample the thorns under thy tread” and replaces it with “tread firmly on the thorns”.

Then in the third verse, she again decides that the phrase “when the night is troubled with storm” should move up after the “If”, and be recast as “If in the storm-troubled night”. The phrase “with the thunder flame of pain” is axed, and replaced with “with the lightning and pain”. The archaic “thine” is updated to “your”, and the last line is reworded to read “and you yourself become a light”.

A cleaned-up version.

A cleaned-up version.

This version was then typed up, with an almost apologetic note “This is my own rough translation of a poem written in the Bengali language by Rabindranath Tagore”. My father’s editorial pencil suggests “in fear’ instead of “afraid”, and corrects two spelling mistakes—“hepless” and “lighting”—introduced by the typist.

Another person Indira Gandhi would have wanted to consult was the noted scholar Krishna Kripalani, who had written on Tagore, Gandhi, and others. However, he was seriously unwell, and so Mrs Gandhi wrote a letter to him enquiring how he was. But with an inimitable personal touch.

Letter to Krishna Kripalani.

Letter to Krishna Kripalani.

Of course, she could not have been satisfied. She set to work on another version of the song, which has much more cadence when read aloud.

If no one answers to your call,

Go your way alone.

If all are mute, oh hapless one,

If all are filled with fear,

Then with open heart, and fearless voice,

Speak the truth alone.

If all go back, oh hapless one

When you are on your way,

Along the deep dark forest track,

If no one turns his face,

Then walk the thorny path

With proudly bleeding feet,

With face set bravely forward,

The blood-stained dust behind.

If no one likes lights the beacon,

on a dark stormy night,

If no one hears thy your knocking,

and all men shut their doors,

then be not hurt, oh hapless one,

but in the fiery thunder,

Set the torch of thy heart aflame,

And burn in the dark alone.

Even this version is marked up, with the “proudly” to be promoted before “with”. The erroneous “likes” is corrected to “lights”, and the archaic “thy” updated to “your”.

The last line still troubles her: She asks, “Will this give the correct meaning to the little girl—will she take it for Burn oneself or burn the torch?”

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Then she seems to think that the line may be recast, but unsure, asks “Can I take this liberty?” when suggesting that “burn in the dark alone” be changed to “light the darkness alone”.

Another translation.

Another translation.

I don’t know who was the “little girl” reader that Indira Gandhi had in mind, or whether her version of Tagore’s great poem-song ever got published, but looking at her painstaking work on the poem, even in an unfinished form, one can appreciate her literary sensibilities.

Sanjiva Prasad is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Delhi. This article was written in his personal capacity.

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