Book review 'Meeting with Mussolini': A poet’s fascination with a Fascist

Temptation is to trot out what the speaker thinks will give the most pleasure
Kalyan Kundu’s pleasantly informative book on an aspect of Rabindranath Tagore’s life that is not often discussed suggests two main conclusions. First, the old proverb “Cobbler, stick to thy last” should be dinned into our men of letters who can appear like innocents abroad when they stray into unknown political terrain. Second — and this may not be unrelated to the first point — not many Indians can resist the lure of those who might be called “world-famous”.
Perhaps a third national trait should be added. It’s a favourite point with many Western writers and analysts that seldom does an Indian bring himself to deliver something that might be true but is unpalatable. The temptation is to trot out what the speaker thinks will give the most pleasure.
There is no reason to imagine the greats somehow escape national characteristics. That explains the bumbling and blundering that Kundu presents with a wealth of well-researched detail as Tagore’s two meetings with Mussolini during his second visit to Italy in 1926. Of the many countries he visited, the two trips to Italy — the second as the fascist dictator’s guest — are of immense interest to Tagore scholars. They provoked an adverse international response, and were extensively debated in the Indian and Italian media.
But reading the evidence Kundu has marshalled, it’s difficult to sustain the plea of misunderstanding. Tagore may not have been a defender of fascism — beyond a vague humanism he had no specific political interest so far as one can make out — but his letter to C.F. Andrews, later published in the Manchester Guardian, was really a tactical move to defuse criticism. In any case, Romain Rolland thought the letter far too cautious. If Tagore thought Mussolini was “the most slandered man in the world”, as he told the Italian according to Mahalanobis’ transcription, or if the “massive vigour” of Mussolini’s head reminded him of “Michelangelo’s chisel”, his opinions couldn’t have changed so conveniently overnight.
Even a Nobel Prize winning genius is expected to be honest and consistent. Kundu cites another Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, in what sounds like an attempt to excuse Tagore’s seemingly self-serving prevarications. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, Sen talked of Tagore’s “confused relationship with Italy during Fascism” and suggested his opposition to British imperialism led him to believe “that in Italian Fascism there could have been the seeds of a new ‘anti-imperialism’”. According to Sen, “Dimmed by that illusion, he (Tagore) accepted to be ‘exhibited’ by the regime during a brief official visit in Italy.”
This is sheer sophistry. The actual visit when Tagore met Mussolini may have been brief but he had been there before when he quite openly angled for official hospitality. It would have been called “free-loading” in a lesser mortal. He sought free gifts of Italian books and pictures for Visva-Bharati and an Italian scholar paid for by Rome. The suggestion that Tagore return what he himself called “the magnificent gift from Mussolini, an almost complete library of Italian literature” as a principled gesture, was not acted upon.
The mundane motive of building up Visva-Bharati may sound reasonable to ordinary folk. Paradoxically, however, it might tarnish the Tagore legend with the dross of material interests that great Indian savants are not expected to know anything about. Similarly, Tagore was entitled to his own views of Mussolini without succumbing to liberal or leftist pressure. But what were those views?
Gandhi also met Mussolini and found him “a riddle” as he told Rolland. Clearly, Mussolini put himself out to impress colonial Asians. Gandhi spoke favourably of his “care for the poor, his opposition to super-urbanisation, his efforts to bring about a co-ordination between capital and labour” and believed Italians loved Il Duce’s “iron government.”
Subhas Chandra Bose had two meetings with the Italian ruler. But his was a more straightforward response. Netaji was not ideologically unsympathetic. He believed in force and needed allies against the British.
Nehru alone was unambiguous about his dislike of Fascism and lived up to his principles. “I dislike Fascism intensely and indeed I do not think it is anything more than a crude and brutal effort of the present capitalist order to preserve itself at any cost,” he declared in December 1933. For all his European travels, Nehru resolutely refused to meet Mussolini.
Gandhi, Bose and Tagore — yes, Tagore so conscious of carrying the “burden of renown” — had no such scruples. Nehru, Gandhi and Bose lie outside the purview of Kundu’s evaluative study but he does well to reproduce the little-known letter that Tagore wrote to Mussolini on November 21, 1930 — the last from the Bengali poet to the Italian dictator — and whose gratefully placatory tone compensates for the somewhat critical messages to Andrews and the Manchester Guardian. Kundu can’t confirm that Mussolini actually read the letter but it exists in the Italian archives.
Kundu’s conclusion is charitable. “It is true that Tagore never eulogised fascism”, he writes, “but there is no doubt that he was fascinated by Mussolini. It took a long time for him to overcome this fascination — perhaps not until the time when Mussolini attacked Abyssinia and other Mediterranean states.” (Emphasis added)
This work based on a vast corpus of reportage, lectures, conversations, letters, memoirs, articles and news reports doesn’t describe Tagore’s reaction in 1935 when Italy did invade what is now Ethiopia. But the perhaps suggests Kundu is not entirely certain that Tagore disapproved.
Gently, very gently, Meeting with Mussolini: Tagore’s Tours in Italy leads the reader to the conclusion that even gods have feet of clay. The book deserves to be read for that alone, especially in hagiographic Bengal.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author
( Source : deccan chronicle )
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