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From the Bookshelf: Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

Written by Isobel Lobo, 14th November 2022

As part of our ongoing work around The Reader Bookshelf, we've asked staff to share their thoughts about some of the inspirational texts in the collection.

This month, Geetha gives an insight into why she nominated Gitanjali to appear on this year's Reader Bookshelf and how she came to discover Rabindranath Tagore's work.

Words by Geetha 

When I heard that this year’s Bookshelf theme was going to be ‘Light & Darkness’, Gitanjali came immediately to my mind to recommend. It is a set of 103 poems, with the title meaning 'song offerings', originally written in Bengali and translated into English.

It came into my life many years ago when I read poem 35, ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’ in a Tagore anthology that belonged to my much-loved uncle, who was a great reader. The writing felt so powerful I copied out that poem and kept that handwritten copy pinned up in each place I lived.

The poems are spiritual and lyrical in feeling, somehow very different from Western literature, which was all I had read before – and connected me to the meaning of my full name (Geethanjali). Tagore was writing at a time before Indian independence, but his writing felt relevant to an idealistic 18-year-old, and still today, I want to be reminded of the possibility of a world that ‘has not been broken up by narrow domestic fragments; Where words come out of the depth of truth ’.

There’s much more to explore in the collection, as the poems take us on a journey through different parts of life. I can open it anywhere and find something that provides solace, gladness or revelation in a moment. This feels like nourishment for the soul or whatever we think of as our inner selves, in a language that expresses things at the edges of my awareness and understanding.

The poems show us life’s timeless gifts and struggles, sorrows and joys, side by side. As poem 37 says, when we may feel at our limits and exhausted, and ‘old words die out of the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.'

I really recommend picking up the collection and delving in when you have or need a quiet moment, but I also know that exploring the Gitanjali poems in Shared Reading groups with others will uncover more treasures.

Earlier this year, our colleagues read poem 63 with some of our wonderful volunteer Reader Leaders around the country. Hearing the lines below felt like the profound power of Shared Reading being newly expressed. I’m grateful for both Tagore’s song offerings and the means we can offer at The Reader to bring them to life for more people.

Gitanjali 63 

THOU HAST made me known to friends whom I knew not. Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own. Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger.

I am uneasy at heart when I have to leave my accustomed shelter; I forget that there abides the old in the new, and that there also thou abidest.

Through birth and death, in this world or in others, wherever thou leadest me it is thou, the same, the one companion of my endless life who ever linkest my heart with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.

When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut. Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose the bliss of the touch of the one in the play of the many.

by Rabindranath Tagore

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