My Reminiscences - by Rabindranath Tagore
Just read this small book called "My Reminiscences". It is Rabindranath Tagore's desultory account of the first 20 odd years of his life, told with wry humour and great literary skill. There's a nice online version here.
My interest in Tagore was mainly due to some articles I'd read by historian Ramachandra Guha (like this one) where he praises his transnational outlook. In fact Guha has written the foreword to a new compilation of Tagore's lectures titled Nationalism. But I chose Reminiscences as I felt the author's own account of his formative years would be more gripping.
I was struck by what an extremely rich and highly literary household he grew up in. The children were always tended by a coterie of servants, and as they grew up they had the luxury to throw themselves into every artistic pursuit you can think of. Read this chapter called My Home Environment and be amazed.
After his Upanayanam his father took him along wherever his work took him (I never figured out what his occupation was). At one time they spent a few months in Dalhousie, where the young Tagore was taught by his father on a wide range of subjects - from Upanishads to astronomy. Again, you ought to read At the Himalayas to know what a charmed existence he led. The pattern continues into adulthood as he stayed with his brother in England, Karwar so on.
After finishing the book, I read up on his father. Debendranath was one of the founders of "Brahmo Samaj" and also extremely renowned for his spirituality. But the Wiki article doesn't explain the source of his wealth.
So on you move to his grandfather Dwarkanath (1796 - 1846), whose life is utterly fascinating. Though he inherited some estates after his father's death, he increased his wealth manifold.
Quoting from Wikipedia:
"Dwarkanath looked upon his investment in land as investment in any other business or enterprise and claimed what he deemed a fair return. In later years Dwarkanath would appoint European managers for his estates at Sahajadpur and Behrampore. He knew that the ryots were more amenable to the disciplinary control of British managers than their Bengali counterparts. In time Dwarkanath would convert his estates to integrated commercial-industrial complexes with indigo, silk and sugar factories. In the cut throat world of zamindari politics Dwarkanath took no nonsense and gave no quarter to either European or native.
played a pioneering role in setting up a string of commercial ventures -- banking, insurance and shipping companies -- in partnership with British traders
Tagore's company managed huge zamindary estates spread across today's West Bengal and Orissa states in India, and in Bangladesh, besides holding large stakes in new enterprises that were tapping the rich coal seams of Bengal, running tug services between Calcutta and the mouth of the river Hooghly and transplanting Chinese tea crop to the plains of Upper Assam. This company was one of those Indian private companies engaged in the Opium Trade with China. Production of opium was in India and it was sold in China. When the Chinese protested, the East India company shifted the business to the proxy of certain selected Indian companies of which this was one. Very large schooners were engaged in shipments. This made Dwarkanath extremely rich. And there are legends about the extent of it."
So there's our good friend the opium trade again.
In fact, another Wiki article on the Tagore family claims that "Rabindranath Tagore’s creative multiplicity or Debendranath Tagore’s spiritual pursuits were, to a considerable extent, made possible because of the foundations of leisure provided by Dwarakanath Tagore’s wealth."