What is your language, dear: Tagore’s letter to Victoria Ocampo
In a world that is constantly shrinking, we find both joy and experience frustrations in building cross-cultural friendships. One such famed cross-cultural relationship was a platonic friendship; an emotional and spiritual love that grew between Victoria Ocampo and Rabindranath Tagore. Ocampo was an Argentinian writer, publisher and intellectual, one who Borges called “the quintessential Argentine woman”. She was Tagore’s hostess for his few months in Argentina before he set sail to Europe.
They are both said to have influenced each other’s work and it is said his poem ‘Exotic Blossom’ is addressed to her too.
I whispered again in your ear
What is your language, dear?
You smiled and shook your head
And the leaves murmured instead.”
(translation by Monish R. Chatterjee)
Theirs was an unusual friendship –three decades of age separating them. It was a friendship conceived in a language that was not native to either; a friendship sustained through correspondences over fifteen years after they parted. We bring you one such letter written by Tagore to Ocampo, who he calls Vijaya. He seems to have been written soon after he left Argentina.
In his sixties, when he met her, he articulates fleeting thoughts that many of us have had,
“When I am away from my own land I seek individuals who may represent to me the country to which they belong. For me the spirit of Latin America will forever live in my memory in your form.”
He also speaks of predicaments much more familiar to us than to most in his time – the barriers of language in an increasingly globalized world. Have we not often wondered if we knew some of our close friends fully if we do not know them in their native tongue?
“Unfortunately the language barrier prevented free communication of minds between us, for you never felt fully at home in the only European language I happen to know. It was unfortunate because you have a richness of mind which naturally longs to offer its own wealth to those you accept as your friends. I completely understand the pain which you must have suffered for being unable to express your deeper thoughts to me and to remove the fog that screened off the world of your intellect from my vision. I am deeply sorry that it has not been possible for me to have an acquaintance of your complete personality – the difficulty being enhanced by the literary richness of your mind.”
Much has been written about their beautiful relationship including a recent film the trailer for which you can watch here. You can read the full letter below:
To Victoria Ocampo
S.S. Giulio Cesare
13 January 1925
I am drifting farther and farther from your shore making it possible for me to recall the memories of my everyday surroundings at San Isidro against a background of separation. I am not a born traveller – I have not the energy and strength needed to know a strange country and help the mind to gather materials from new experiences to build a nest in a new land. Therefore when I am away from my own land I seek individuals who may represent to me the country to which they belong. For me the spirit of Latin America will forever live in my memory in your form. You helped rescue me from the regimented hospitality of a reception committee and allowed me to feel through you the pulse of your country. Unfortunately the language barrier prevented free communication of minds between us, for you never felt fully at home in the only European language I happen to know. It was unfortunate because you have a richness of mind which naturally longs to offer its own wealth to those you accept as your friends. I completely understand the pain which you must have suffered for being unable to express your deeper thoughts to me and to remove the fog that screened off the world of your intellect from my vision. I am deeply sorry that it has not been possible for me to have an acquaintance of your complete personality – the difficulty being enhanced by the literary richness of your mind. For such a mind has its aristocratic code of honour about its manner of self-expression choosing to remain silenced than send out threadbare thoughts. But never think for a moment that I failed to recognize that you had a mind. To me it was more like a distant star rather than a dark planet. When we were together we mostly toyed with words and tried to laugh away our best opportunities to see each other clearly. Such laughter can cloud our minds, raising superfluous dust and blurring our view. One thing most of my friends fail to understand is that where I am real I am profoundly serious. Our reality is like treasure, it is not left exposed in the outer chamber of our personal self. It waits to be explored and only in our serious moments [can it] be approached. You have often found me homesick – it was not so much for India, it was for that abiding reality in me in which I can have my inner freedom. It becomes totally obscured when for some reason or other my attention is too much directed upon my own personal self. My true home is there where from my surroundings comes the call to me to bring out the best that I have, for that inevitably leads me to the touch with the universal. My mind must have a nest to which the voice of the sky can descend freely, the sky that has no other allurements but light and freedom. Whenever there is the least sign of the nest becoming a jealous rival of the sky, my mind, like a migrant bird, tries to take its flight to a distant shore. When my freedom of light is obstructed for some length of time I feel as if I am bearing the burden of a disguise, like the morning in its disguise of a mist. I do not see myself – and this obscurity, like a nightmare, seems to suffocate me with its heavy emptiness. I have often said to you that I am not free to give up my freedom – for this freedom is claimed by my Master for his own service. There have been times when I did forget this and allowed myself to drift into some easy captivity – but every time it ended in catastrophe and I was driven by an angry power to the open, across broken walls.
I can tell you all this because I know you love me. I trust my providence. I feel certain – and I say this in all humility – that he has chosen me for some special mission of his own and nor merely for the purpose of linking the endless chain of generations. Therefore I believe that your love may in some way, help me in my fulfillment. It will sound egoistic, only because the voice of our ego has in it the same masterful cry of insistence as the voice of that which infinitely surpasses it. I assure you, that through me a claim comes which is not mine. A child’s claim upon its mother has a sublime origin – it is not a claim of an individual, it is that of humanity. Those who come on some special errand of God are like that child; if they ever attract love and service it should be for a higher end than merely their own enjoyment. Not only love, but hurts and insults, neglect and rejection come not to grind them into dust but to kindle their life into a brighter flame.
Your friendship has come to me unexpectedly. It will grow to its fullness of truth when you know and accept my real being and see clearly the deeper meaning of my life. I have lost most of my friends because they asked for me for themselves, and when I said I was not free to give myself away– they thought I was proud. I have deeply suffered from this over and over again – and therefore I always feel nervous whenever a new gift of friendship comes my way. But I have accepted my destiny and if you have the courage to accept it as well, we shall be friends forever.
Shri Rabindranath Thakur