I have in the past read Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World(1916) his novel about the beginnings of the Swadeshi movement, which reflects his own attempts to reconcile the influence of Western culture with a desire for Indian independence from Britain, but so far I’m unaware of having read any of his short stories.
Putting aside any considerations of the weird for a moment, what struck me first was how like some of Kipling’s Indian stories it seemed to be, superficially at least, though this story, published the same year as The Home and the World, is at least one generation younger, perhaps two. Kipling himself wrote some extremely good ghost stories and other supernatural tales set in India, though the Indian characters were, inevitably, positioned as inherently unknowable, the engagement with their cultures throwing up things that were finally incomprehensible to the civilised white man. It is easy to dismiss Kiping as being racist and jingoistic but that’s too simplistic. Kipling saw India with a child’s wonder, in many ways, mixed with homesickness, nostalgia, but he was also part of a system that ‘knew’India through cataloguing and classifying it, through administering it. I suspect, in part, Kipling’s Indian stories were a struggle to reconcile these two very different parts of his experience. His ghost stories tend to achieve explanation and closure, although at times the hauntings can be grotesque and very immediate.
A characteristic of many of Kipling’s stories is that they have a framing narrator, telling a story he heard in the hills, or at the club, or something that he experienced himself, but a long time ago, last year, and so on: there is a space between the narration and the experience, almost a cordon sanitaire, as though ensuring that it can’t wash over into the experience of the listeners, except when, as sometimes also happens, they are to be the instrument’s of its resolution. There is always the feeling, though, of compartmentalisation, of everything being in its place. Loss of control, in Kipling’s stories, is usually temporary.
‘Then Hungry Stones’ starts with a similar structure: a narrator tells a story about being on a journey with a relation, on a train, when he meets a man, whom he believes to be ‘an up-country Mahomedan’ from his dress and bearing (and here I refer you to the Great Trunk Road sequence in Kim, when Kim first sees the mass of humanity travelling across India, and Kipling reflects the way in which the British categorised them by dress and behaviour). However, ‘he discoursed upon all subjects so confidently that you might think the Disposer of All Things consulted him at all times in all that He did’ (90). Again, turning to Kim, one might think of Hurree Chunder Mookherjee – Hurree Babu – the Bengali spy, educated by the English, careful to conceal his true nature behind an outward appearance of buffoonry.
Then the mysterious person, as if well aware of the effect he has, begins to tell a story, and this forms the heart of Tagore’s story. From the outset, he is a man with agency. He can through up a job ‘owing to a disagreement about some questions of administrative policy’ (90) and as quickly find another job. This is not a man who is obliged to find his way by means of cherishing small connections and begging for interviews, at least not by his own account. He is forthright and confident in what he is doing, and as an employer of the Nizam of Hyderabad, he is working within one of the princely states of British India, which enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy, managing their own affairs.
The narrator takes up residence in the abandoned palace of Emperor Mahmud Shah II, although warned by his clerk not to do so. The narrator dismisses the clerk’s warning, yet almost immediately finds that ‘the solitude of the deserted palace weighed upon me like a nightmare’ (91), mirroring the experience, again, of many of Kipling’s characters, who find themselves cut off from company (in their case, other Britons). Why the narrator keeps himself aloof is less clear: status, or religion, perhaps, or other issues that he doesn’t mention.
Before a week had passed, the place began to exert a weird fascination upon me. It is difficult to describe or to induce people to believe; but I felt as if the whole house was like a living organism slowly and imperceptibly digesting by the action of some stupefying gastric juice. (91)
Here, one thinks back to Hanns Heinz Ewers’ ‘The Spider’, and the mysterious effect of the room, the window and the presence of Clarimonde. In ‘The Hungry Stones’, however, the story’s register is, initially, more that of a straightforward ghost story, as the narrator hears sounds around him, of what he comes to think of as resonances of the life within the palace when it was still occupied. This is benign enough in its way, to begin with – the laughter of young women as they go down to the river to bathe, the sound of their jewellery. The narrator is ‘filled with a lively fear that it was the Muse that had taken advantage of my solitude and possessed me’ (92), a reasonable enough concern, not least because he finds himself drawn back to the palace again that night.
This time, he has a much more elaborate dream, of being awoken by a servant girl and then led to a bedroom where, before he awakes, he catches a glimpse of her feet before he is disturbed and awakes. The dreams, if they are dreams, continue, ever more elaborate and confusing.
Then followed a great discord between my days and nights. During the day I would go to my work worn and tired, cursing the bewitching night and her empty dreams, but as night came my daily life with its bond and shackles of work would appear a petty, false, ludicrous vanity. (93)
In some respects, this is a classic scenario, of someone moving between two worlds, one more attractive than the other, being pushed more and more urgently to make a choice. In the narrator’s daytime world is nothing but work, which he obviously isn’t that engaged with; at night, he pursues a mysterious, scarcely visible woman.
She had maddened me. In pursuit of her I wandered from room to room, from path to path among the bewildering maze of alleys in the enchanted dreamland of the nether world of sleep. (94)
The dream world and the waking world seem to be collapsing into one another. In a deeply enigmatic passage, the narrator describes how he dresses himself for these encounters, though what is not clear is whether this happens in the dream or in reality.
I would then be transformed into some unknown personage of a bygone age, playing my part in unwritten history; and my short English coat and tight breeches did not suit me in the least. With a red velvet cap on my head, loose paijamas, an embroidered vest, a long flowing silk gown, and coloured hankerchiefs scented with attar, I would complete my elaborate toilet, sit on a high-cushioned chair, and replace my cigarette with a many-coiled narghilehfilled with rose-water, as if in eager expectation of a strange meeting with the beloved one (93).
Later, it seems that this is ‘real’, as the narrator notes the day ‘I gave up my queer English coat and hat for good’ (94). He says also that ‘[w]hatever belonged to the present, whatever was moving and acting and working for bread seemed trivial, meaningless and contemptible’ (95).
It is entirely possible to read this story simply as a strange encounter in an old house, the very stones of which are ‘thirsty and hungry, eager to swallow up like a famished ogress any living man who might change to approach’ (96), a form of possession which might simply be the result of too much solitude or something external acting upon the narrator’s senses, and it works very well as such. However, there is something else happening here as well. Tagore has taken a classic story and given it another layer of meaning. The narrator is not simply seduced by the house, he is seduced by the past, and in a very specific way: he is being drawn back to the pre-British past of the area, but from the world of one coloniser (symbolised by the English coat, breeches and the solar topee) to another, that of the Nizams, whose rulers came originally from Baghdad (hence the Arabic influences in the story, and the references to the Arabian nights and a thousand and one stories), and were themselves interlopers, establishing the state after the fall of the Mughal empire. Tagore seems to be suggesting here that it is wise to be careful about what sort of model you take for independence, and that reaching into the past is not necessarily a good idea. Words such as ‘dream’ and ‘intoxication’ pepper the narrative, suggesting a commentary on more than the narrator’s own mental state.
I can’t help reading this story with a postcolonial inflection at present, thanks to my academic work, but at the same time it is also a powerful story of enchantment, exotic to western eyes but also very controlled in its construction, working within the rhetorical rules of a particular style of story-telling familiar to us through the Arabian Nights but not falling prey to overdoing the exoticism. Much is hinted at, little is seen, and for all we know, given the track record of other occupants in the house, the narrator has indeed gone mad, though we infer, of course, that he hasn’t, from the fact that he is telling, supposedly telling, the story. And the attempts to offer an explanation are cut off by the narrator’s offering another story which, through circumstance, remains untold, as though Tagore himself is reminding us that this is an Indian story, and as such we should not expect a British resolution. Indeed, the more we look at the story, the more convoluted it becomes in terms of its embedded structure, which in itself has a nice touch of the weirdness about it.