“Poetry makes nothing happen” Auden, Yeats and Tagore


Chandna Mandal reciting Tagore’s poem Prabasi in the Sunderbans

Click below to see the recitation


The dumb earth looks into my face, and

Spreads the arms about me,

At night, the fingers of the stars touch my dream

They know my former name.

Their whispers remind me of the music

Of a long silent lullaby;

They bring to my mind, the smile of a face

Seen in the gleam of the first day break

There is a love in each speck of Earth, and

Joy in the spread of the sky

I care not if I become dust, for the dust

Is touched by his feet

I care not if I become a flower, for the flower

He takes up in his hand.

He is in the sea, on the shore; he is with

Ship that carries all.

Whatever I am I am blessed, and blessed

Is this earth of dear dust.

Publisher’s Note No: 14. Utsarga (1914). This translation by Gurudev is an interesting illustration of how the Poet faced the almost impossible task of giving a full and faithful rendering of some of his original composition. The first sentence is a translation of only the last two lines of the third stanza of the original; next four sentences are rendering of the fourth stanza; the sixth sentence of the first two lines of the eighth stanza; the seventh and eighth sentences of the first four lines of the ninth stanza and the last two sentences are of the last four lines of the tenth stanza. Translation  retrieved by Sankar Datta.

Yet, not too far in space and time from where Tagore wrote this beautiful poem, other men caused misery to millions of human beings.  One such even was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, in which over 3 million people died, in a year when there was little overall shortage in rice production.  One person who studied this  tragedy was Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist, who in fact, still has a house in Shantiniketan, and indeed we passed by it. Sen’s elegant explanation of famines, when there is no absolute shortage of food, deals with a “failure of entitlements” .  Another blogger has explianed it much more elegantly:

I’ve just finished (the main text of) Amartya Sen’s ‘Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation’. Sen (famously) argues that, contrary to conventional belief, most famines aren’t created by food shortages. Harvest failures, reductions in food imports, droughts, etc, are often contributing factors – but far more important are the social systems that determine how a society’s food is distributed. Absolute scarcity – insufficient food to feed everyone – is extraordinarily rare. Vastly more common is for an adequate supply of food to be beyond the reach of those who need it most. Sen advocates shifting our attention from questions of food availability to questions of distribution, or to the social systems that guide this distribution. “If one person in eight starves regularly in the world, this is… the result of his inability to establish entitlement to enough food; the question of the physical availability of the food is not directly involved.” (p. 8).  See more at:


I remember seeing Satyajit Ray’s Asani Sanket about the Bengal Famine in 1973, thirty years after the event, in the dark cool comfort of the Regal theatre in Delhi, yet sweating, holding the hand of my Bengali girl friend of those days…And that was just three years after the horrors of  the genocide in East Pakistan in 1970, which brought millions of Bengali  refugees to India and led to the birth of Bangladesh. How is it possible, for a land to be witness to both – the romance of Tagore’s humanism and the cruel “realism” of the Bengal Famine and the Bangladesh War?

After a few days , when I met Siddharth, we exchanged notes on what the trip to the Sunderbans and Shantiniketan meant to us, and this is how the brief  dialogue went. This link is to just a  three  minute long conversation and in English.



About vijaymahajan

Educated at St XaviersSchool, Jaipur; IIT Delhi; IIM Ahmedabad and Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, USA; Co-founder of several development organisations - BASIX (www.basixindia.com), PRADAN (www.pradan.net), Development Finance Forum (www.dfforum.org), Andhra Pradesh Mahila Abhivruddhi Society (www.apmas.org), Sa-Dhan (www.sa-dhan.org) and the Microfinance Institutions Networrk (www.mfinidai.org). Chair of CGAP Excom; BASIX Boards; DSC Board; Board member of MSSRF, ASSEFA, Gram Vikas Honours - WEF Davos Schwab Social Entrepreneur; Ashoka Global Fellow; IIT Delhi Distinguished Alumni Award; HSBC-Access Award for Outstanding Contribution to Microfinance in India; listed among India's top 50 most powerful people in India by BusinessWeek, Asia edition, 2010 Married to Savita, Deputy Dean, ISB, Hyderabad; two children, Chirag and Chandni
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