The Art of Solitude: In Rabindranath Tagore’s letters, the gifts of a life in solitude

First published in Scroll

After a week of rain, hail and non-seasonal arctic chills, a balmy sunshine and a breeze carrying whispers of spring indulge us in the Southern Ontario suburb where I live with my husband. With a book in my hand, I step out into the backyard and find it to be the venue of an unrehearsed celebration of this climatic turnaround. All our immediate neighbours are out – the daughters of our next-door neighbours yell hellos to their school friends in the backyard across theirs; our other next-door gardener neighbour is busy tending to her perennials; my husband readies the soil for his impending vegetable garden.

Human hums and giggles enter me along with the constant chirp of the backyard birds. As I open my book Chhinnapatrabali – Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of letters, written for the most part to his niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani, I don’t miss the rare synchronicity this moment brings, especially in our current physically distanced world. The cover of my reading material is beginning to tear up, evidence of the book’s confidant-like association with me through the decade of my life outside India.

Tagore wrote a lot of these letters from his family estate in East Bengal, which he’d been tasked to manage in his youth. While opening a window to his literary talent and creative process, the letters also serve as a manifesto of living in and celebrating solitude and its many gifts. A shift away from the human-centric way of life is one of these gifts. In letter after letter, Tagore speaks of how, whenever he lands in the rural environment of his estate from the industrially-rushed Calcutta, he senses centrifugalism of the humankind. “There’s less of man and more of earth here,” he notes in a letter and adds, “when in the village, I cease to see man as an independent entity,” likening mankind’s journey to that of rivers coursing their way through forests and cities.

Chhinnapatrabali also endears itself to me because of the way it reveals the everyday Rabindranath, shorn of his career accolades and their accompanying weight. With gentle humour and uncensored vulnerability, the letter writer brings out his deepest loves and anxieties, his humanism shining through them like the sun gleaming in our rain-sodden backyard.

In reading the letters nestled in this volume, I learn, recurrently, the need to take a pause from the staged antics of a mechanized life. For, as Tagore shows, true viewing – whether of blackbirds and squirrels in my backyard, or the rivers and trees, boatmen’s songs and women’s banter, cows chasing flies away with their tails, a silent full moon night in a Bengal village – calls for rest and repose. Not only of the outer eye that sees. But of the inner eye that makes, out of one, a seer.

Letter photo source: The Daily Star

Ganga and Mahadev by Rahi Masoom Raza

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

My name sounds like a Muslim’s
Slaughter me and set my home ablaze
Plunder the room where my statements stay awake
Where I whisper to Tulsi’s Ramayana
And say to Kalidasa’s Meghdoot
That I, too, have a message.
My name is like that of Muslims
Kill me and torch my house
But remember that the water of Ganga courses through my veins
Throw a splash of my blood on Mahadev’s face
And say to that yogi — Mahadev
Withdraw this Ganga now
It has sunk into the bodies of the degraded Turks
Where it runs as blood.

गंगा और महादेव
राही मासूम रज़ा

मेरा नाम मुसलमानों जैसा है
मुझको कत्ल करो और मेरे घर में आग लगा दो
मेरे उस कमरे को लूटो जिसमें मेरी बयाने जाग रही हैं
और मैं जिसमें तुलसी की रामायण से सरगोशी करके
कालीदास के मेघदूत से यह कहता हूँ
मेरा भी एक संदेश है।
मेरा नाम मुसलमानों जैसा है
मुझको कत्ल करो और मेरे घर में आग लगा दो
लेकिन मेरी रग-रग में गंगा का पानी दौड़ रहा है
मेरे लहू से चुल्लू भर महादेव के मुँह पर फेंको
और उस योगी से कह दो- महादेव
अब इस गंगा को वापस ले लो
यह ज़लील तुर्कों के बदन में गढ़ा गया
लहू बनकर दौड़ रही है।

COOKING HILSA

Heat mustard oil in
a wok until you bathe in
its smoke. Drop the
fish with
fresh green
chilies in the
sizzle.

Save the oil. The ancestral
elixir your rice remembers.

Parse the fish bones
with your fingers, take
carefully-impatient bites.

Let the memory of a
week-long bone-in-the-throat
pain in your youth
be your guide.

Live in
the cloud of the fish smoke
that is now your house.
Imagine you’re in your
home city years ago
when you could scarcely
afford the fish or its obstinate
lingering.

Promise never to
buy it again; spare yourself
the agony of its fussy
bones and fishy hangover.

When you visit the
Bangladeshi store next,
fall for its charm again.

Admit that some surrenders
are irreversible. And hereditary.

Bhimpalasi

A faint note of his flute.
An abstracted Radha
wanders through a
flower garden. She loses
herself in his strains.

Why do you wander
in the forest looking for
him, Kabir teases. He’s
everywhere, in everything.
Entwined in your very being.

Bhimpalasi courts me even
now. Still as shy. Still
as persistent. Soft. Plaintive.

I seek like Radha. Sometimes I
Find like Kabir.

Malkauns

Radio waves dance between
sleep and the half light
of dawn. Yawning, Ma adjusts the
knob to wake up the station. The man
on the radio invokes the Mother in
gravelly chants. Malkauns,
waiting in the wings,
takes the stage. The beginning
begins.

Far away, in another lifetime,
a temple bell rang. The devotee,
crazy for a single glimpse of the
lord, cried his heart out. “Don’t
shatter my hopes; leave me not.”
The dark-skinned god stood still.
Wobbling across decades
of palsy, an old man’s feet
breathed life into its
stone.

Malkauns moves mountains. Cripples.
Stony gods. An adored mother goddess
and her carousel of
children. It moves sleepy heads
into a dozy trance. Malkauns
moves dark nights of the soul
into mornings that must
awaken.

Lakeshore

When shallow, water extracts
its wages in laughter peals. Children
Slosh in the lake filling buckets, spilling
More than they draw, like their giggles
splattering over the beach.
Mothers keep watch from the shore with sips
of wine, not aged yet. Grandfathers slide back
to afternoons when sibling platoons
scattered their own ruckus on the sand. Backwards
Is the aging mind’s favourite sandpit.

At the deep end, water gets more exacting.
It asks for payment in palpitations, dense
heaving. It’s voluminous crests mock
blood rush, adventure, even love.
There’s no digging at the deep end, only
swimming and sinking. You age as the water
does — angry, quickening, fateful.

Between the shallow and the deep ends,
Water makes you float. Gravity is a
slippery trickster. Not a bedrock.

Yaman

First published in Saaranga

It comes with autumn’s
surreptitious footfall. Each
Alaap a waft of incense
Smoke, rarely a thunderstorm.

The oxygen of light
Slowly dissolves. With It,
the room. Yaman, like its
teevra Madhyam, persists,
cementing itself in wall
corners, sustaining
the breath.

Hours deepen. The
sun’s diurnal imperiousness
becomes a laughable hoax.
Vision loses its clues. The
world is lost, an illusion
one had given in to. Bypassing
The eye’s stubborn pathways,
Yaman rows the ears and flows
Right into the heretic heart.

No one claims darkness
better than Yaman.

LOST SEASON

Spring has lost its
Spring and doesn’t
spring anymore. It waits
a long time to
alight from behind a steely
Curtain. Politely, in slow
Overtures, with well-rehearsed
daffodil smiles.

Once spring was rambunctious,
impolite. It burst open
Like a ripe wood apple
In summer, pregnant with
Forbidden pleasures.

Spring lured us into sucking
a pit off its berryness.
Abandoning textbooks.
Diving into a sea of
yellow, the colour
of sudden love. Faces were
canvasses for
freestyle paint-throwing.

Spring waited for no one.
It raced straight into summer.
Spring. Sprint. Vanish.
The ripening berries its
only remnant. As tart and
impolite as spring.
As irresistible.