Rabindranath Tagore

Weird #10: “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore (1916)

Rabindranath Tagore, who “is credited with originating the Bengali-language version” of the short story form (91), wrote several ghost stories. However, according to The Weird‘s editors, “The Hungry Stones” (1916) is the most “overtly weird, or supernatural” of his tales. It is the kind of short story known as a yarn, a rapturous tale told by a narrator who is probably making it all up, but who is nonetheless entertaining. Thus, there is no expectation for the storyteller to be believable or realistic, although the narrator’s story is framed through the viewpoint of a more trustworthy “I.”

My acquaintance with Tagore is limited, but he is a giant of Indian letters. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize and his advocacy initiated a literary renaissance at a time when the Indian independence movement was gaining steam. His Bengali-language novel Ghaire Baire, or The Home and the World, dramatizes the conflict between his love for European culture and his sympathies for the revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement, who were revolting against European culture. This novel was somewhat famously reviewed by Gyorgy Lukacs, the Marxist literary theorist, who compared the revolutionary Sandip to Gandhi, even though Gandhi had not yet come into his fame.

In a sense, “The Hungry Stones” is also a revolt against European culture–a revolt of the senses and of the imagination against drab modernism. The order of India’s colonized, modernist present is upset by India’s glorious, sensuous and sensual Mughal-dynasty past.

The story begins with the narrator encountering an eccentric but confidently knowledgeable and talkative man on the train, who claims knowledge of the Vedas and the Persian poets. I had a sense of the narrator as a modern Indian since he has “no pretense to knowledge of the Vedas” despite the fact he shows enough devotion to be returning from a “Puja trip.” The strange man seems touched by divine knowledge. The narrator’s companion, a theosophist, claims he might be supernaturally inspired by an astral body.

While waiting for a connecting train, the two men are held captive by the fellow, who has their attention for hours as he tells his yarn.

The man claims he was a collector of cotton duties in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad in the city of Barich, in which there is a marble palace built for Emperor Mahmud Shah III’s pleasure. The palace still stands, abandoned. When the man ventures inside, he is confronted with the loneliness of the deserted building. However, at night, he hears, but does not see, the pattering feet and the charming giggles of Persian damsels as they playfully chase each other and bathe in the reservoirs. The speaker feels a thrill of desire and curiosity and becomes raptured by the dream of the marble palace, so much so that his ordinary life, in which he wears a short, English coat and tight breeches, becomes an absurd dream. “It seemed as if a dark curtain of 250 years was hanging before me, and I would fain lift a corner of it tremblingly and peer through,” he says (91), suggesting how the two eras of history are parted only by a voyeuristic veil. In a way, colonial India was also characterized by this sense of the simultaneity of different historical eras, with the modern and the medieval coexisting side by side.

Though this story is certainly more delightful than Hans Heinz Ewers’s grim “The Spider,” it still makes a similar connection between seduction, decadence, madness, and death. In Ewers, Bracquemont’s fate is at one point compared to that of a spider who lures another spider into her web and eats him. In Tagore, the cotton duty collector is lured by one Persian maiden in particular who “beckoned [him] with her five fingers bedecked with rings to follow her cautiously” into “one of the thousand and one Arabian Nights … a trysting-place fraught with peril” (93). He becomes ecstatic with the richness of this new world, where he dresses like a prince, shedding his modern clothes. The Arab maiden treats him with “a caress and many a kiss and many a tender touch of hands,” seducing and entrapping him so that he gives up his “queer English coat and hat for good” (94). The palace consumes him like Ewers’s spider. Only the cry of Meher Ali, the madman whose cry is “All is false!” brings the speaker to his senses and saves him from staying a third, fatal night.

“The Hungry Stones” is an orientalist fantasy of desire, which may appear strange coming from an Indian, rather than the usual European living out his exotic sexual fantasies. However, I propose that if Tagore does participate in the orientalism of the European literature he admired, then it can be argued he simultaneously reclaims those fantasies for his own, native tradition.

Tagore’s story merits the label “weird fiction” partly based on the description of the marble palace, whose hungry stones consume the speaker. “I felt as if the whole house was like a living organism slowly and imperceptibly digesting me by the action of some stupefying gastric juice,” he says (91). This description of architecture as a living organism devouring the trespasser reminded me of editor Jeff VanderMeer’s description of the Tower in his weird fiction novel, Annihilation. In Annihilation, a biologist is drawn deep into an underground tower where a dangerous monster lurks in its depths. She notices the walls are not stone, as she previously thought, but some kind of organic matter, and that the Tower could be an organism itself, swallowing her. Although Tagore does not use this image as literally as VanderMeer does, the emphasis placed on the palace having digestive juices is visceral and strikingly similar.

The speaker goes on to describe the palace at the end of the narrative: “The curse of all the heart-aches and blasted hopes had made its every stone thirsty and hungry, eager to swallow up like a famished ogress any living man who might chance to approach” (96). The speaker was not the first man to be enraptured by the ghosts of the palace; it has long been a place of death and heartache.  The horror of joining the multitudes of men who have experienced frustrated desire is equivalent to the horror of consumption. However, rather than join them, the speaker alone manages to hold onto his sanity and tell his story, much like the protagonist of a Lovecraft story.

Though this Tagore story is explicitly supernatural, in the end, the frame narrative adds grounds for deniability. The yarn-spinner, like Scheherazade, finishes his story only to hint that he will soon begin a new one about the secret misery of the Arab maiden. However, the connecting train soon arrives, and the two friends must move on to Calcutta. The frame narrator claims that the whole story is a pure fabrication, while his theosophical friend disagrees.

Their argument permanently ends their friendship.

Next week, we’ll be travelling to Italy to discuss “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini, a children’s author who wrote a sequel to Pinocchio. It was translated for The Weird into English for the first time by Brendan and Anna Connell.

One Thousand and One Hockey Nights in Canada

Canadientalism–that’s Orientalism, but Canadian. Instead of a discourse of largely European imperialist knowledge production aimed at defining the “exotic East,” Canadientalism is a discourse of American imperialist stereotypes aimed at defining the essential nature of the “exotic North.”

In the visual arts, we see Orientalism perpetrating stereotypes of the Arab, everything from turbaned thieves with splendid scimitars to veiled harem seductresses. Spicy aromas wafting around bazaar stalls, jewel-encrusted onion-domed palaces, vivid green gardens of paradise, and the licentious inner sanctuary of the harem–all these are part of standard Orientalist set design.

Canadientalism, on the other hand, is more corny and a whole lot less sexy (unless you have a thing for men in uniform). It perpetrates stereotypes of the Canadian, everything from scarlet coated Mounties with saddled steeds to bucktoothed Laurentian beavers. The aroma of spruce wafting from a lumberjack’s cabin, snow-encrusted igloo homes, vivid green national parks, and the chilly interior the hockey arena during playoff season–these are the stereotypes Americans attach to Canada because they find our apologetic complacency favourable to their imperial interests.

Whereas the Arab is a symbol of terror for many Americans these days, the Canadian is a symbol of timidity. The Americans would never invade their neighbours to the North, at least not as easily as they’ve done in the Middle East, but Canadians can generally be trusted to go along with whatever the Americans decide to do. Sorry, but there’s nothing threatening about a bunch of maple syrup-glazed doughnut eating, Tim Hortons coffee-drinking igloo dwellers. Except maybe Don Cherry, with his exotic suits gleaming like Damascene silk.

Above all Canadientalist texts, one stands above all as a paragon of literary exoticism: The One Thousand and One Hockey Nights in Canada. Loosely based on The One Thousand and One Nights, OTOHNC recounts the story of a Prime Minister embittered by Quebec separatism and the heroic MP who filibusters Parliament with a storytelling marathon that lasts for exactly one thousand and one nights. When the last story is told, the PM is fully cured of his jealousy, after learning so many stories about the whelps who have had it worse off than he has.

On the three hundred and fifty-sixth night, a tale is recounted of a French-Canadian university student and Habs fan who is then transformed into a beaver when he accidentally triggers the wrath of a jinni. The beaver travels to Ottawa to convince the chief of the RCMP that he is human. Seeing that the beaver has above average intelligence and can even play chess, the police chief makes the beaver his own personal pet. This leaves it up to the police chief’s mistress, an Indian princess, to plead on behalf of Mr. Beaver for the return of his humanity.

The following illustration is based on an actual illustration of The One Thousand and One Nights by H.J. Ford, a talented English illustrator active at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a quick sketch in which I hoped to pastiche this illustrator’s style with a kind of humour reminiscent of Kent Monkman’s style in his painting The King’s Beavers, on display in the Canadian exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Canadientalism

Untitled
Original illustration by H.J. Ford

 

Did you like this post? Let me know. Also here are some other posts you might like:

 

Are there Canadian Dragons?

What are the Seven Pillars of Wisdom?

How T.E. Lawrence Came to Many-Pillared Iram

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

King of Egypt, King of Dreams by Gwendolyn MacEwen