Image: An example of handwritten Bengali script. Part of a poem written by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1926 in Hungary. Public domain.
Tagore reshaped Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Author of the "profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse" of Gitanjali, he became in 1913 the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tagore's poetic songs were viewed as spiritual and mercurial; however, his "elegant prose and magical poetry" remain largely unknown outside Bengal. He is sometimes referred to as "the Bard of Bengal." The poem’s text: see below.*
In 1943, Winston Churchill and the British Empire needed millions of Indian troops, all of India's industrial output, and tons of Indian grain to support the Allied war effort. Such massive contributions were certain to trigger famine in India. Because Churchill believed that the fate of the British Empire hung in the balance, he proceeded, sacrificing millions of Indian lives in order to preserve what he held most dear. The result: the Bengal Famine of 1943-44, in which millions of villagers starved to death.
Relying on extensive archival research and first-hand interviews, Mukerjee weaves a rivetting narrative of Churchill's decisions to ratchet up the demands on India as the war unfolded, and to ignore the corpses piling up in the Bengali countryside. The hypocrisy, racism, and extreme economic conditions of two centuries of British colonial policy finally built to a head, leading Indians to fight for their independence in 1947.
Few Americans know that World War II was won on the backs of these starving peasants; Mukerjee shows us a side of World War II to which we’ve been blind. We know what Hitler did to the Jews, what the Japanese did to the Chinese, what Stalin did to his own people. This tragedy has largely been neglected, until now.
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* The complete poem in English is found at
Specks of living light
twinkling in the dark.
The voice of wayside pansies,
that do not attract the careless glance,
murmurs in these desultory lines.
In the drowsy dark caves of the mind
dreams build their nest with fragments
dropped from day’s caravan.
Spring scatters the petals of flowers
that are not for the fruits of the future,
but for the moment’s whim.
Joy freed from the bond of earth’s slumber
rushes into numberless leaves,
and dances in the air for a day.
My words that are slight
may lightly dance upon time’s waves
when my works heavy with import have gone down.
Mind’s underground moths
grow filmy wings
and take a farewell flight
in the sunset sky.
The butterfly counts not months but moments,
and has time enough.
. . . ‘Let me light my lamp,’
says the star,
‘and never debate
if it will help to remove the darkness.’
Before the end of my journey
may I reach within myself
the one which is the all,
leaving the outer shell
to float away with the drifting multitude
upon the current of chance and change.
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