Major collections of Rabindranath Tagore’s English work published by Sahitya Akademi do not mention this interview.
Most of the people I met on the voyage back were like soldiers without culture and refinement. Of course, they came to know me as the ‘Poet Tagore’ and they were all very nice to me. They would often ask me to join them in cards and betting and drinking, which I politely refused.
Two zealous missionaries I met on board used to preach Christianity to me with a view to make me a convert. They bothered me so much that at last I lost my patience and had to tell them that I was too old for all that and enquired why they did not preach to their own people, who were always drinking and gambling.
Tagore and missionaries
The fact that even common Englishmen knew him as the ‘Poet Tagore’ bears testimony to his celebrity status in the English-speaking world at the time of this interview in the early 1900s. It is equally noteworthy that it is Tagore, an Indian, who finds the Englishmen “without culture and refinement”, and not the other way round, as had been the case through much of the Raj. The episode with zealous missionaries also provides an instance where Tagore points out the follies in the English (or Europeans) themselves, countering the missionary narrative of the benighted Indians needing enlightenment to overcome their vices. Further, his encounter with the missionaries is an essential element of the colonial experience, as the two most significant human images of the Empire were the military and the missionary.
So, why is this brief interview in a now little-known periodical important? For the general reader, this is just another of the seemingly innumerable stories on Tagore that circulate in our popular culture, in our collective imagination as Indians. However, for a student of Indian periodicals, it is significant that major collections of Tagore’s English works (such as the massive three-volume set edited by Sisir Kumar Das and published in 1994 by the Sahitya Akademi, titled The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore) do not mention this particular interview even though they contain his speeches and other writings from his travels in Britain and America, which is not surprising considering the vast corpus of Tagore’s writings in his lifetime. It is possible that there may be many such uncollected pieces by Tagore in libraries big and small across India and elsewhere.
What is more important is the thrill that a researcher experiences when something like this emerges quite by accident, just when it was beginning to seem that hours of travel in crowded state government buses, long negotiations with the library staff in multiple languages, and patient searching among dusty bookshelves, would come to nothing.
The sad part, however, is that the periodical that surfaced out of nowhere will most likely return to oblivion. Without a call number, or a catalogue entry, it would be virtually untraceable—buried in a sea of dust, perhaps never to be found again.