Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
In late September I became curious about the exact timing of the announcement of the Nobel Prizes. I knew it was in the Fall but had never paid attention to the date. Since I have been writing Booklover, it has become a “tradition,” if you will, to seek out the current year’s recipient of the Nobel and write about their work. However, my Google search did not produce a date — they like to be cagey about this — but it did produce some trivia about the Literature Prize. One piece of trivia on the Nobel site was a list of the “Most Popular Literature Laureates.” Rabindranath Tagore was at the top of this list. Instead of waiting for the 2014 announcement, I decided to research Tagore and his work.
Rabindranath Tagore was born in Calcutta, India in 1861. His biography is a tale of wealth, travel, self-education, and international influence. He was the youngest of a large family. Servants influenced Tagore’s upbringing because his mother died when he was 14 and his father traveled extensively. The young Tagore chose to skip formal classroom schooling and explore. This pattern followed him throughout his life. His travels would expose the world to his writing and thus his popularity grew outside of his native land.
Tagore wrote in almost every genre, but he began in poetry at around the age of eight. His first substantial poetry was published under the pseudonym Bhanushingho (Sun Lion) when he was 16. Short stories and drama followed very quickly from the pen in his young hand. “Gitanjali” is Tagore’s best-known collection of poems and is referenced as the reason for his being awarded the 1913 Nobel Literature Prize: “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.” He was the first non-European to be awarded the Literature Nobel.
However, the work I chose to embrace has a different title: “Fireflies.” Published in 1928, it is a collection of 253 verses that critics speculate were inspired by the Japanese Haiku style of writing that Tagore was immersed in during the 1920s. In the forward of the illustrated collection I read Dr. Ashok Kumar Malhotra creates a beautiful analogy: “A tiny firefly is a much loved insect in India and the rest of the world. When I was growing up in India, during the darkest of the dark nights, while lying on the bed at the roof of the house, we used to watch these little creatures. Through their minuscule lights they opened up windows of hope, breaking the blackness of the sky. We learned this from our wise grandfather who used to say: ‘When you cannot find your way in the darkness, these fireflies act as messengers of hope.’” Alberta Hutchison’s illustrations give an additional dimension to each of the 253 “firefly” wisdoms of Tagore. Enjoyed together, it is a unique spiritual experience.
The timing of my awareness of this author and this particular collection of his poems is not lost on me, and here is the connection. This past year I learned that the Photinus carolinus firefly is one of at least 19 species that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Their mating season is late-May to mid-June. During this time these lightning bugs create a unique synchronous light show. This particular species is the only one in America that can synchronize the light patterns. With the coming of a milestone birthday, three of my very close high school buddies and I have reservations to experience this synchronous light show. We were eager to explore life when we were young, and now we gather to remember that we can still be fascinated by both the simplicity and the complexity of that life. Some of our wonder is reflected in Tagore’s “Fireflies.” I leave you with five:
“The fireflies, twinkling among leaves, make the stars wonder.”
“In the drowsy dark caves of the mind, dreams build their nest with fragments dropped from day’s caravan.”
“The sea of danger, doubt and denial around man’s little island of certainty challenges him to dare the unknown.”
“Day with its glare of curiosity puts the stars to flight.”
“The tapestry of life’s story is woven with the threads of life’s ties, ever joining ever breaking.”
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.