Immigrant Bengalis

There is absolutely no shortage of gorgeous days in Southern California, even in the winter months of November through February. There arevery few places like this on earth. Here, one could plan for a picnic or any outdoor activity without ever worrying about what the weather would be on that particular day. One could also do gardening in this area throughout the year, if one wishes to. It was one of these days on one Sunday more than twenty years ago. The sun was up, the air was cool and crisp, the sky was completely cloudless and the San Gabriel Mountains at the not so distant Angeles National Forest were covered at the top with snow from previous days. It was a spectacular morning. I decided to go to a nearby garden shop to see what could be planted for early spring.

With a few plants in my cart, I was standing at the check-out counter of a local garden shop when a woman from behind gently grabbed my forearm and said in a soft voice,

“You must be from India.”

“Yes, I am” I said, turning back to her. I saw a well-dressed elderly woman with a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She must be on her way to the church.

“You have to pardon me for meeting you like this,” she said, “it is improper for a lady from the South to meet a man this way. But I couldn’t help myself. I just returned from India a few days ago.”

“That’s alright.  Where in India did you go?” I asked.

“I went to visit Shantiniketan,” she said, “I arrived in New Delhi and then took a train from there to Shantiniketan. It was a long journey and took me more than two days to reach there.”

She wasn’t able to make a reservation for the faster trains and had to settle for a slow moving local passenger train. Her journey was not comfortable, but she had no complaints about it. However, the mere mention of the word Shantiniketan greatly surprised me, as I had never met any Westerner who would travel to India just to visit Shantiniketan. It is just not heard of. If I had ever met a stranger like this, who had just returned from India visiting common tourist attractions like the Taj Mahal, the palaces in Rajasthan, the temples in South India, etc., our conversation would probably not have continued beyond the check-out counter. But I couldn’t let this woman go. I became curious to know more about her interest in Shantiniketan.

“Out of all the places to go in India, why did you choose Shantiniketan,?” I asked.

“I had a ldesire for long to visit that place and moreover, I have been reading Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ my entire life,” she replied softly.

The checkout counter of the garden shop was not an ideal place for any further discussion about her interest and love for Tagore and his ‘Gitanjali’, so I suggested that we meet again at our home. She was delighted with this idea.  We exchanged our telephone numbers and then she extended her right hand and introduced herself as Hazel Hoff. She said she was 86 years old.

To most Indians, particularly Bengalis from Eastern India and Bangladesh, the presence of Tagore in everyday life is still so powerful that any additional information on Tagore or Shantiniketan to the readers is superfluous. But for this writing, a few relevant pieces of information are necessary.

Shantiniketan (Abode of Peace) is a small town near Bolpur in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, India approximately 180 kilometer north of Calcutta. Rabindranath Tagore founded a school there in 1901 and conceived there an imaginative and innovative system of education. In 1951, the school became one of India’s central universities, called Visva-Bharati University.

Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941 at the age of eighty. He was not only an immensely versatile poet; he was also a great short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, and composer of songs, as well as a talented painter. Tagore wrote volumes during his lifetime, which included nearly twenty-five hundred poems, over seventeen hundred songs, nine hundred essays, one hundred and three short stories, fifty plays, and twelve novels. Tagore is still very widely read and his songs continue to reverberate around the eastern part of India and Bangladesh. But as Amartya Sen,  Nobel Laureate economist and  former student of Shantiniketan wrote in 1997, “ the rest of the world, especially in Europe and America, the excitement that Tagore’s writing created in the early years of the twentieth century has largely vanished.”

‘Gitanjali (Song Offerings),’ a selection of Tagore’s one hundred or so poems for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, was published in English translation in London in March of that year, and had been reprinted ten times by November of that year, when the award was announced. The concept of a direct, joyful, and totally fearless relationship with God can be found in many of Tagore’s religious writings, including the poems of ‘Gitanjali.’

The element of religion in Tagore’s writing, which attracted and inspired people of the West, can be best described by citing one example. Susan Owen, the mother of Wilfred Owen, an English poet and soldier, and one of the leading British poets of the First World War, wrote to Rabindranath in 1920, describing her last conversation with her son before he left for the war, which would take his life. Wilfred said goodbye with “those wonderful words of yours- beginning at “When I go from hence- let this be my parting word.” When Wilfred’s pocket notebook was returned to his mother, she found “these words written in his dear writing- with your name beneath.” (The full text of this poem is included at the end of this article.)

Within a few days Hazel arrived at our house driving her own car. Because of our mutual interest in Tagore’s writing and my own association with Shantiniketan as a student during my junior high school years, my wife, Lolita and I quickly developed a close friendship with her. I wanted to hear from her what inspired her to read ‘Gitanjali’ and how it all started.

Hazel’s story was brief, but direct. When she was young, the family moved from Texas to San Marino, California near Pasadena. When she was in her early 20s, she fell deeply in love with a young man from a well-to-do family and was eager to marry him.  But the boy’s family wouldn’t agree to their marriage and they moved their son out of the area to break up their relationship. Hazel was so heart-broken that she took to bed. She couldn’t eat or sleep for days and became very ill. Her family was very concerned for her health. And it was during that time that a close family friend presented Hazel with an original copy of ‘Gitanjali,’ one that was published in 1913, and asked her to read through it. It was the poems in ‘Gitanjali’, according to Hazel, that eventually got her out of her sorrows and despair. As unreal as it may sound, Hazel had been reading ‘Gitanjali’ ever since, every single day. She never went to sleep without reading a few verses from ‘Gitanjali.’

“What do you find in ‘Gitanjali’?” I asked one day.

“The joy, the boundless joy.” she replied. She didn’t elaborate any further.

Perhaps what Hazel Hoff experienced or found by reading ‘Gitanjali’ her entire life, can best be understood by the speech delivered by Herald Hjame, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy during the award ceremony on December 10, 1913.

“..He (Tagore) peruses his Vedic hymns, his Upanishads, and indeed the theses of Buddha himself, in such a manner that he discovers in them, what is for him an irrefutable truth. If he seeks the divinity in nature, he finds there a living personality with the features of the omnipotence, the all embracing lord of nature, whose preternatural spiritual power nevertheless likewise reveals its presence in all temporal life, small as well as great, but especially in the soul of man predestined for eternity. Praise, prayer, and fervent devotion pervade the song offerings that he lays at the feet of this nameless divinity of his. Ascetic and even ethic austerity would appear to be alien to this type of divinity worship, which may be characterized as a species of aesthetic theism. Piety of that description is in full concord with the whole of his poetry, and it has bestowed peace upon him. He proclaims the coming of that peace for weary and careworn souls within the bounds of Christendom. 

This is mysticism, if we call it so, but not a mysticism that, relinquishing personality,seeks to become absorbed in an All that approaches Nothingness, but one that, with all the talents and faculties of the soul trained to their highest pitch, eagerly sets forth to meet the living Father of the whole creation."

Later in life, Hazel got married and had children. After her husband passed away, she lived alone in an apartment in Claremont, California.  We visited her in her apartment twice. Every time we visited her, we saw Hazel walking around her apartment, clutching the ‘Gitanjali,’ close to her chest. That book was her constant companion.

Within a few weeks I was about to move to Saudi Arabia on a work assignment and told Hazel of my plan. The news greatly disappointed her.

“I’d like to come and visit you there,” she said.

Knowing the rules and limitations regarding travel to Saudi Arabia, I told her that it wasn’t an option. They simply do not allow any visas to visitors. That remark didn’t sit well with Hazel.

“Don’t tell me that I can’t visit you. You just do not want me to go and see you there. You must be going there to work on some secret Government assignment,” she retorted.

I tried to explain, but I don’t think I ever convinced her that I was not a part of any secret mission whatsoever.

While we lived in Saudi Arabia, we exchanged letters regularly with Hazel Hoff. A year after we moved, Hazel moved from her apartment to an assisted living home in the same city and we visited her during our trip back to California in July 1993. Hazel invited us for lunch at the cafeteria of the facility, where she lived and when we arrived there we saw Hazel waiting at the lobby with her dear ‘Gitanjali’ in her hand.

A few months after our return to Saudi Arabia, Hazel informed us in a letter that her beloved ‘Gitanjali’ had been stolen. She was greatly distressed.  She said she suspected someone whom she trusted had taken that precious book away from her, and even worse, she considered that person to be a friend of hers. We were saddened by the news, but felt totally helpless to do anything about it. Hazel managed to obtain another copy of ‘Gitanjali’, but the loss of that original publication was perhaps, too much for her to bear.

Not too long after this, letters stopped coming from Hazel. A follow-up letter didn’t bring any replies back. We had no other means to find anything about her. We also didn’t return to California for several years. Hazel Hoff was probably no more.

One may wonder, why am I writing her story now, so many years after I stopped hearing from her?

Rabindranath Tagore was born in 1861. In 2011, India, Bangladesh and other parts of the world celebrated Tagore’s 150th birthday in various forms. I remembered Hazel Hoff and I missed her, and wondered how she would have celebrated Tagore’s 150th birthday if she were still around.

I do not have the answer. Perhaps, that pious woman would be remembering Tagore by simply reading her ‘Gitanjali,’ quietly in her den.


Tagore and His India by Amartya Sen, 1997

“When I go from hence, let this be my parting word,

that what I have seen is unsurpassable

I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus

that expands on this ocean of light,

and thus I am blessed- let this be my parting word

In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play

and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.

My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch

who is beyond touch,

and if the ends come here, let it come- let this be my parting word.”

Rabindranath Tagore                                                                             (Gitanjali 96)

(Posted January 28, 2014)

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Hazel Hoff and Reading Gitanjali in the US
Benoy R. Samanta