Galpo Guccho by Rabindranath Tagore

I want to say right off the bat; I get kind of ticked off when one of the recommendations in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books is not for a specific book. I’ve seen some where someone just says all of the short stories by a particular author, or those of a specific period. It just seems vague and makes it difficult to pull together exactly what I’m supposed to be looking at for commentary.

Of course, that isn’t really the case with Galpo Guccho by Rabindranath Tagore. Primarily a late 19th/early 20th century Bengali lyric poet (though forced to work as a landlord on his family’s estates), Tagore wrote about 90 stories over his lifetime that were collected together as Galpo Guccho.

However, I didn’t manage to find anything when I went looking for Galpo Guccho (the spelling listed in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books). I did find references to Galpaguccha, but didn’t find an English copy of that either. I found various English collections of Tagore’s stories, but none had everything. There were always around thirty or so stories, but I had no apparent way of figuring out whether or not I could build a full set.

In the end, I ended up just looking at Selected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore. Only thirty of the ninety are inside, but I just couldn’t figure out whether all 90 were even in English. I’ve heard that some of Tagore’s stories are particularly difficult to translate, and I couldn’t find evidence anywhere of a complete English set. Heck, I couldn’t even be sure how to spell Galpaguccha. Selected Short Stories will just have to do.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Chitra Divakaruni.)

Anyway, the volume I looked at primarily has very short stories concentrating on various aspects of rural Bengali life. There is a lot of love, family duty, marriage, and all that sort of thing. Though very short, and sometimes being more what I would call slices as opposed to full stories, they call forth a whole vivid world (this portion selected from “Little Master’s Return” where a servant loses the charge he adores, raises his own son believing him to be a reincarnation of the lost master, and passes his son off as the real thing only to get banished, with an unwanted monthly stipend, by the young ‘master’ for his efforts):

One afternoon, when it was cloudy but did not look like rain, Raicharan’s capricious young master refused to stay at home. He climbed into his push-chair and Raicharan gingerly pushed it to the river-bank beyond the paddy-fields. There were no boats on the river, no people working in the fields: through gaps in the clouds, the sun could be seen preparing with silent fiery ceremony to set behind the deserted sandbanks across the river. Suddenly peace was broken by the boy pointing and calling, ‘Fowers, Channa, fowers!’ A little way off there was a huge kadamba tree on a wet, muddy stretch of land, with some flowers on its upper branches: these were what had caught the boys attention.

Beyond the descriptive power of the stories, I also noted an extreme amount of compassion in the stories. The compassion wasn’t always for the characters, though. Instead, the abundance of compassion throughout appeared to be directed at humanity in general (this portion being from “The Postmaster” where a young postmaster hires a poor girl to be his servant, the girls falls in love with him, and then abandons her when he resigns his post and leaves for his home town):

When he was on the boat and it had set sail, when the swollen flood-waters of the river started to heave like the Earth’s brimming tears, the postmaster felt a huge anguish: the image of a simple young village-girl’s grief-stricken face seemed to speak a great inarticulate universal sorrow. He felt a sharp desire to go back: should he not fetch that orphaned girl, whom the world had abandoned? But the wind was filling the sails by then, the swollen river was flowing fiercely, the village had been left behind, the riverside burning-ground was in view. Detached by the current of the river, he reflected philosophically that in life there are many separations, many deaths. What point was there in going back? Who belonged to whom in this world?

As I mentioned before, some stories seem like complete stories whereas others seem more like slices of life. Some end well, others poorly. Really, there is quite a variety in this collection, even if it isn’t the complete stories of Tagore.

In the end, I liked the stories a great deal. There was a fable-like quality to a lot of the stories and they were all pleasurable to read. I’m not sure that I was exactly floored, but I did only manage to get 30 of the 90. Maybe my opinion would change if I saw them all. Regardless, they are good stories. I am pleased I had the chance to expand my reading horizons in this direction.

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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Those of you who are paying attention may notice that I, Dave, am going two weeks in a row. Kim is still working on Steinbeck’s East of Eden and in the interests of giving her sufficient time to really give a good look at that one (because I think it really deserves full attention), I offered to go again this week. No worries, though, Kim will be on for the next two weeks.

Anyway, I’d heard good things about The Handmaid’s Tale, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it. To be honest, I tend to prefer Atwood’s more realistic work. I loved Cat’s Eye, but was a little colder on The Year of the Flood. Still, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood, right? You can’t really go wrong. I knew I’d hit it eventually.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Chitra Divakaruni and 10th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Of course, the book is good. Dystopianists everywhere surely have this book on their master lists. Just think about it, the United States has been violently taken over by a theocracy that has stripped women of most rights (property, work, even reading) and instituted a bizarre system when fertile but politically unconnected women are forced (by one means or another and by varying degrees of one kind of force or another) to bear children for the childless elite:

            Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.

            My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.

            My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

Even worse for the narrator, Offred (not her real name, the name assigned to her as a handmaiden when her identity and everything else about her as a person was removed), she remembers when it wasn’t always this way. She once had a career, an independent life, even a husband and child. However, all that is gone. Stolen. She lives a hollow, bare existence. She either produces a child, if the Commander can even sire one, or she dies. Even if she has a child, it won’t be hers. If you are looking for dystopian literature, this is certainly it.

Granted, this world Atwood paints is far worse for women than men. However, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t disturb me. If you are a human being, this book should bother you. If it doesn’t bother you, then I might ask you not to stand too close to me.

This Republic of Gilead (the setting of this story) is dark and inconceivable, but like the best of dystopian literature…one can unfortunately see modern tendrils suggesting how we might end up there from here. I wouldn’t malign anyone existing now by saying that they would want a Gilead type world, but things rarely end up where they are aimed.

Dystopian literature needs this. It needs to frighten us and seem an impossible world, but it needs to contain that germ of a threat that our world could lead there if people aren’t careful. For me, The Handmaid’s Tale definitely contains that germ.

In the end, The Handmaid’s Tale still isn’t my favorite Atwood. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though. Atwood has simply written such marvelous things that, as good as this book is, it still isn’t my favorite.

After all, The Handmaid’s Tale is a captivating story. It is dark and threatening and I was definitely on the edge of my chair with worry for Offred. The world is horribly unpleasant, but I still had a good time reading. It may not be what I consider the best of Atwood, but I don’t think it is one that should be overlooked. The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely a book that needs to be read.