Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Rakta Karabi (“The Red Oleanders”)

Snippets of a dialogue between Nandini and Raja from Rabindranath Tagore’s play written in 1925, translated by Kaushik Chatterjee.

[A note from the blog owner:

I was amazed by the beauty of Kaushik’s translation. I consider it a privilege to share his work with my readers. Thanks, Kaushik, for letting me do so.

Nandini characterizes all that is simple and spontaneous, joyous and free. She is an antithesis to the Raja of Yakshapuri who has shut himself up in his chamber, sitting on piles of gold and obsessed with wealth and power. 

Rakta karabi was immortalised on stage through Bohurupee’s eponymous trailblazer, first staged in 1954. The two inimitable Mitras, Sambhu and Tripti, were the main protagonists.]

In the following tête-à-tête, between the two, Raja remains invisible as his resonant voice can only be heard, at times haltingly, from his locked chamber. 

Nandini: (banging on the netted door) Can you hear me?

: Yes, I can. But don’t pester me, I don’t have time.

Nandini: I’m so happy today. I would like to share it with you. Let me enter your room, Raja.

: No, don’t . Tell me from there, whatever you want to.

Nandini: I’ve brought a garland of jasmine, covered with lotus leaves.

: Wear it yourself.

Nandini: It doesn’t suit me. Mine is the red oleander.

: I’m like the crest of a cliff; loneliness is my decor.

Nandini: Even a stream bursts forth from a rocky crevice; you too shall wear the garland. Come on, cast off the net and let me in. 

: I can’t. I have no time. Tell me quickly, whatever you want to say.

Nandini: Can you hear that distant song?

: What song?

Nandini: the autumnal song- the song of harvest.

“Come and join the autumnal invite,
O everyone of you,
Laden with ripened fruits, her branches bow down to you”

Nandini: Can’t you see the ripened corn glazing in the beautiful autumn sun? 

“The flowing breeze has driven the village women crazy 
As they come out in the open fields,
The golden hues of the sun cascade onto the auburn earth…” 

: Raja, come out of your closet. I’ll take you to the open fields.

“The sky exults as it tunes in to the sounds of flute wafting across the distant plains,
Don’t stay indoors, open the door and join us…” 

: To the fields ? What would I do there?

Nandini: Don’t you know, Raja? It’s much simpler working there than in your closet.

: Ah! I find the easier task a real botheration. Can a placid lake dance to the cadences of a gurgling frothy stream? Now, go away. It’s enough. I’ve run out of time.

Nandini: Sublime is your power. The day you allowed me into your treasury, I wasn’t much impressed seeing the mounds of gold. But I was beyond words to see how effortlessly you were arranging those into a mighty, orderly heap! But tell me, do these crusts respond to your gait, your rhythm just like the golden cornfields out there? Aren’t you afraid always trying to caress with these lifeless lumps buried within the earth’s crypts?

: Why should I be?

Nandini: The earth happily gifts everything she holds dear to herself. But when you rip her apart, plundering her buried entrails as your most cherished wealth, you simply can’t afford to ignore the wails that come out of that darkness like a huge demonic curse. Can’t you see everyone here is fretting, fuming and in a state of perpetual doubt and worry?

: Did I hear you saying ‘curse’?

Nandini: Yes, it’s the very bane of loot and murder!

: I’m not sure about any curse! I can tell you that we wield power. Aren’t you happy with that?

Nandini: Yes, very much. That’s why I implore you to come out in the open, tread your feet on the soft earth, she will be infinitely happy too!

“With the glistening dew drops, the cornstalks are aflame
The nature’s joy knows no bounds as it overflows in myriad profusion…” 

: Nandini, do you know that you extol an unearthly beauty that’s beyond the bewitching charm that you exude? I would like to snatch it away, hold you firmly in my grip. But I can’t. I would like to roll and turn you again and again to get at your core and if I fail, I’ll simply destroy you!

Nandini: What is it that you are saying?

: Why can’t I sieve the glow out of your red oleander and make it the salve for my eyes? The soft, sodden petals are standing in my way! I feel the same resistance in you; it’s too supple to be prised open. Tell me Nandin, what do you make out of me.

Nandini: I’ll tell you some other day! You’ve no time, you’ve just told me! 

: No, don’t go away. Tell me.

Nandini: I’ve told you many a time, I’m enchanted looking at you. A great strength, a mighty power swells and heaves, just like the stormy clouds near the seas! My mind dances to look at you!

: But Ranjan also makes your mind leap in joy!

Nandini: Let’s leave it for another day. I’ll not waste your time. 

: I’ve time. Please tell me.

Nandini: That’s a different rhythm altogether. You’ll not understand.

: I will. I want to.

Nandini: I can’t explain everything to you. Let me go.

: No, don’t. Tell me, do you like me?

Nandini: Yes.

: Like Ranjan?

Nandini: Aah, you’re rambling now. I told you, you’ll not be able to make out all this.

: I can vaguely make out, though. I know our differences. I’ve might, Ranjan has the magic.

Nandini: Magic? What’s that?

: Would I need to explain more? There are mounds of gold and stones and iron, stashed away in the bowels of this earth. That personifies power. On the surface, the moist earth makes the grass grow, the flowers blossom and that's the play of the magic. I extract the diamonds and gems from the deepest crevices of the earth but I can’t steal the magic that embodies life in all its rugged simplicity!

: You are rich! Why do you have to be so ravenous?

: Whatever I have, it has become an awful burden for me. I cannot make a touchstone out of gold. Even with so much wealth and power, youth still eludes me. That’s why I’d like to lay a siege and get you. If I had the exuberance of Ranjan, I could have easily entranced you. I’ve been trying to tighten the noose of the rope all day long! Everything gets ensnared here but for joy. It can’t be fettered!

Nandini: You have trapped yourself! Now it’s strange to see you fidgeting in desperation!

: You won't understand. I’m like an arid desert, turning to the little tuft of grass in you, telling you, ‘I’m burning within, empty and tired’. The parched desert has extended itself, lapping up so many of those fertile plains in the process and yet it so desperately fails to draw close to the little bit of life that clings to the soft, green reed!

Nandini: I didn’t know you are so fatigued! I’ve always marvelled at the mighty power that you command!

: Nandini, once I saw a mountain at a faraway place, weary and desolate. I didn’t realize from its outward appearance that its stones were in terrible, silent pain! At the dead of night I heard a rumbling noise as if it were a nightmare of some distant demon, suffering and suppressed for ages, suddenly blowing itself up in pieces! In the morning I was amazed to see that an earthquake has reduced the mighty mountain to dust, lost in the indistinguishable granules of this earth. I took a lesson from this incident. Of power unknowingly getting crushed under its own deadweight! And I’ve seen just the opposite in you!

Nandini: And what’s that ?

: The same rhythm that plays out in the cosmic flute of Nature!

Nandini: I can’t make out.

: The unique rhythm that lightens up a heavy burden! The same quiver that makes the galaxies of stars and planets dance in unison like some children of the lesser Gods, playing out a well-rehearsed drama! That inner poise has made you so simple and radiant! You are absolutely insignificant to me and yet I envy you!

Nandini: You have withdrawn yourself from everyone! Why don’t you simply let others know you?

: Invisibly, I’ve laid my hands on some of the crudest finds of the world’s large storehouses! Your soft petal-like fingers can easily reach the offerings that nature clasps in her delicate grasp but I, with my whole bodily force, can’t. I have to anyhow unclasp that grip!

Nandini: I don’t quite get you always, let me go now!

: Okay, but before that, please hold my hand. I’m stretching it from this window!

Nandini: Oh no! I can’t see you; I’ll be just too scared finding only an outstretched arm!

: When I try to get hold of you with my bare hands, you all flee away! But tell me, if I try to get you with my entire being, will you let me, Nandin?

Nandini: You didn’t let me enter your room! Now it’s pointless to say all that!

: I don’t dare to ride against the inopportune tide to draw you close. When you’ll freely set your sails to touch my shores, it would be the most auspicious moment! Even I’ll not care if it’s a storm that casts you ashore! No, this is not the time!

Nandini: I’m assuring you Raja, Ranjan would surely set the sail for me! He always comes with a whiff of fresh air, of a happy break.

: Now, I know for sure who charmingly drips the freedom that Ranjan brings with dollops of nectar from the Red Oleander! I’ve mine, left high and dry; Who’ll dip it with honey?

Nandini: Let me go now.

: Yes, but not before you have cared to reply me!

Nandini: You’ll get yours if you see Ranjan! He’s so beautiful!

: Only a beautiful person can feel his resonance! If a brute tries to strike a chord forcefully, the harp doesn't play, the strings only get ripped off! Yes, now it’s time you take leave. Otherwise you’ll be in danger!

Nandini: Yes, I’m going away but don't forget that Ranjan would certainly be coming! You can’t stop him in any way! No, never!


  1. Santanu da, thanks so much for posting this excerpt of the brilliant translation of Rakta Karabi done by Kausik da. It is indeed excellent.

    Kausik da, I had taken a print out of it and had showed it to my parents. Your translation was perhaps even more appreciated by them as like all bengalis of their age, not only has Tagore been an integral part of their lives but they have also had the privilege of watching Rakta Karabi on stage.

  2. Thanks, Anirban. Regarding the quality of the translation, I couldn't agree with you more. I do hope Kaushik will come out with more of them.

  3. I’m too puny for the right words of gratitude, Anirban! You’ve been very kind and I’m so happy that you enjoyed it! It was a rather hurried effort but I loved doing it! It’s pitiably sad that i missed watching it on stage which I shouldn’t have for the last time Shri Mitra enacted in it was perhaps in 1986 (he was past seventy by then with a failing eyesight) as your parents would be knowing better!

    And Santanu da, what would I say to you! You can’t deny your bit in making it worthier! And as for your fond wish, I don’t think I can better my past record! I’m bad in living up to peoples’ expectations! But you never know, even a brick suddenly feels charged!

  4. Such a beautiful translation! Like Anirban-da, I also read it out to my parents last night. They were overwhelmed. I've heard just this very excerpt so many times that while reading it I was amazed at the skill of K-da's pen. He has brought out the fervour of the play and the contrasting images of Nandini and Raja so well. It is as good as the original. It was such an enchanting read, K-da. I read it on the Facebook also. Thank you, Jethu, for sharing it here.

  5. The translation of 'poush toder daak diyechhe, aay re chhute aay' was also really good. K-da does magic when it comes to Tagore's songs/ verses.

  6. My dear little sister has always given her unfailing encouragement and goes a trifle overboard, it seems, when it comes to her very old K-da (do I sound a shade narcissistic here?) and I would count that as one of my blessings.

    In fact,as Santanu da would readily attest, we've always been inspired by her beautiful thoughts and expressions which flow so spontaneously in the blog "Eternal sunshine of the thoughtless mind" which she co-owns with her wonderful friend Sudipto.

  7. Kaushik, Your translation conveys the message and the flavour of the original beautifully. I read the drama long ago, and saw a stage production too, recently. After reading your translation, I felt I was closer to the essence of this timeless piece of literature by Rabindranath.

  8. Kaushik, I strongly agree with your views on Sudipto and Sayantani's blog. Both of them write beautifully. Without any false modesty, I can say that when I was their age, I used to write pitiably juvenile stuff. I will be happy to redirect my readers from here to

    My (infinitely) better half usually doesn't read anything on the computer screen. She made an exception in the case of this post, Kaushik.

  9. Thanks so much, Boudi for your kind words!

  10. You said - It was a rather hurried effort.

    Unless you feel it obvious but true, no great creation can unfold upon you.

    Even Bengali actors can do the dialogues!---


    great effort.

  11. কৌশিকদা এইরকম অনুবাদ বিশেষ অনুভবের ফল। সৈকত