Friend, True North, Ocean of Life

The day darkens as the sun’s about to set
Clouds swarm the sky, it’s the moon they want to get
Cloud overtakes cloud and colour cloaks colour
The dong-dong of temple bell rings loud and clear
Rain pours on that side, hazy goes the green
On this side of the horizon, a million gem stones shine
The cloudy breeze brings back a song of my childhood
Rain falls pitter patter, on the river comes a flood.

(Rain Falls Pitter Patter, Rabindranath Tagore)

That’s how you came into my life–in the playful guise of a grandfather sharing this eternal childhood ballad with the five-year-old me. This was the first of your poems I uttered–in a recitation competition for children. Ma taught me the poem and also your name, but back then, your name meant no more than a big, tough-to-pronounce word. You knew better; you drew the innocent heart in with the pitter-patter of rain and a million gem stones. Don’t I also remember the poem in which you talk about a little boy imagining playing hide-and-seek with his mother by becoming a champa flower? The boy’s wish, to quietly watch Mother go through her day–doing her worship ritual, reading the scripture in the afternoon, lighting the evening lamp on her way to the cattleshed–even as he remains hidden from her view, is something with which every child heart would commune. How did you know that, wise grandfather?

Even as the sea beckons at the river to join it, your ocean kept splashing gently across the humble stream of my life. Every Wednesday evening during my growing-up years, Ma would tune in to a radio station to listen to a fifteen-minute broadcast of your songs, sung by various artistes. I understood little of the words then, but your melody had made me a captive for life. In time, the words resonated too:

“My freedom is in the sky’s bright light,
My freedom is in dust and in the green of the grass.”

Your songs of freedom gave me the key to unlock the realm of unbounded freedom; of liberation that’s found in the blue of the sky, the green of the grass, in the hearts of all people, and in work that defies all danger and sadness.

Your immortal call of “Walk alone if no one heeds thy call,”has been the beacon that has guided many a lives through darkness, even after nearly fifteen decades since you called the earth your abode.

Slowly, your picture started becoming clear to me. As we paid homage to you on your birth anniversary in junior school, I was entranced by your music. When I sang in the chorus for Chandalika, it felt like swinging rapturously amid a musical joy ride–from the boistrous song of the curd-seller to the meditative melody of the Buddhist monk. Later, as I grew up, I wouldn’t tire of wondering how you brought about such magnificent diversity in your nearly three thousand songs. I haven’t stopped being amazed.

More songs, more memories, more of my little stream meeting the ocean that you were. I remember many a summer afternoon, sitting on the floor with Grandma, who would prod me to sing your songs to her. She had her favourites, no less. The one where you cried for peace with your disenchanted opening lines, “The world, fervid with violence, sees new skirmishes daily.”And the song of the seeker that goes like,

“Who is the crazy one that makes me wander from one neighbourhood to another?
What tune is it that rings in the air so melodiously?”

And then came the poetry, the novels, the short stories. All bearing your heartfelt understanding of humanity, nature, and the timeless mystique that governs the day-to-day functioning of the universe.

“In what way has the sun’s rays touched my life today
How has the morning bird’s song penetrated the cave’s darkness
I can hardly fathom how life has awakened after so long!

Life has awakened,
And water surges forth,
I am unable to hold back my desires and emotions any longer.”

(The Waterfall Awakens, Rabindranath Tagore)

Sanchaita, your anthology of selected poems, became my guiding star through many a difficult times. As I saw my feelings manifesting in your eloquent poetic expression, I wondered how you found access to my innermost being. How did you, dear true North?

In Gora, you taught me what nationalism and political consciousness really meant, without ever being didactic about it. I am stunned to see how relevant it reads even today, so many decades since you penned it. But isn’t timeless your middle name?

Photographer: Eve Andersson

And how could I ever forget little Mini’s innocent-yet-demanding interactions with the unforgettable Kabuliwala? How effortlessly you made two such disparate characters bond. And the poignancy as Mini grows out of her carefree childhood even as the Kabuliwala yearns for the innocence of her toddler days, years later?

In my adulthood, you continued to enmesh me into your infinite realm. The songs became more prominent, and every time I sang them, my heart felt emancipated. What’s it with your words, mystic sage?

“The sky is laden with stars and the sun,
The earth full of life,
In the midst of it all, I have found my place,
Amazed I am, and thus bursts forth my song.”

The songs continue. In the middle of a chore, on seeing a fresh morning, or without any reason at all. How did you entwine them with the beat of my life, dearest friend?

Today, on your 145th birthday, am I paying you homage? Nah, I hardly can. I can’t even claim you as mine. For as you would have said, how can the stream claim the ocean? It can only aspire to merge with the ocean. And like my mother says, even oceans have limits, but Rabindranath is limitless.

You belong to the green of the grass, the song of the morning bird, the pain of the kabuliwala. And to the whole of humanity.

As I remember my life’s journey holding your hands, I only aspire for my country and the world, what you would have.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

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16 thoughts on “Friend, True North, Ocean of Life

  1. Bravo!I’m so impressed at the care and detail you put into every post. Every single word and picture carefully selected to achieve a moving tribute.This constant exercise is what makes a great writer. Congratulations! 🙂

  2. Bhas, what I pick up as a personal reflection from this post is the constant silent reminder of how very beautiful the simple things in life really are. That there is a rainbow to an everyday

  3. You just introduced me to a poet I never heard of before. I can hardly fathom how life has awakened after so long!I imagine an elder who has just discovered that life is not just for the young.

  4. Jason, I am glad I could share my joy of Tagore with you. If you do find out more, you won’t be disappointed. Yoda, yes, I am–rather unabashedly at that. “Where the mind is without fear” remains one of my favourites too. Cesar, thanks for the kind words. I only tried; it’s impossible to capture Tagore in a single post. In fact any number of posts would fall short of encompassing his literary phenomenon. Ivan, welcome to the blog. Glad you liked Tagore’s poetry, in spite of my terrible translation skills.Bernita, isn’t that so true? Tagore and his songs will never stop pulling at my heartstrings. Susan, you got it. The bulk of Tagore’s philosophy talks about how the deepest peace lies in the simplest of things. The peace we so easily overlook. Scott, Rabindranath Tagore happens to be the first Asian to win a Nobel. It’s my sheer good fortune that Bengali, the language he wrote in, is my mother tongue. “I imagine an elder who has just discovered that life is not just for the young.”You may be surprised to know, it was quite the opposite when Tagore wrote that poem (The Waterfall Awakens). He was just 21 when he wrote it. As he himself puts it in context, one day, while standing on his porch, he saw sunrays filtering through trees. As he stood there, suddenly it appeared to him that a veil was lifted off his eyes and he found the entire universe shrouded in a cover of bliss and beauty. He wrote this poem that very day, and long after it was written, the beauty of the universe still hadn’t faded for him.

  5. It does surprise me, such beautiful prose from one so young, so insightful. The beauty of poetry is that it speaks to different people in different ways, and not always the way the author intended.

  6. I completely agree, Scott. And to think what I have posted is just the opening stanza of the poem that caught your attention. The full poem is absolutely electrifying; it has such energy and natural joy in it.

  7. What a beautiful tribute to Rabindranath Tagore, Bhaswati. I did study a few of his poems in school, but I don’t think I read any of his short stories. I’m going to ask my mom to send me a few of Tagore’s books from India for I’d like to reacquaint myself with his work.Lotus

  8. Lotus, thanks for the kind words and for dropping by. I am glad the post rekindled your interest in Tagore. You can find some of his translated works (poems, mostly) on the net. But nothing better than a book, so, yes, get those precious books :). Jeff, the pleasure was entirely mine, to share my impressions of Tagore with you all. Thanks for dropping by 🙂

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