Letters from a foreign shore — Rabindranath Tagore’s letters to his niece

First published in Cafe Dissensus

39

Shilaidaha

Thursday, January 9, 1892

[January 14]

For the last couple of days, the weather here has been vacillating between winter and spring. In the morning, northern winds send shivers through land and water and, in the evening, the southern breeze dances through the moonlight of the bright fortnight. It is clear that the spring is nigh. After a long time, an Indian nightingale has started singing from the garden on the other side. The human heart is somewhat excited, too. One can now hear strains of song and music from the village across, which indicates people aren’t too eager to shut their doors and windows and retreat to bed all bundled-up, while the evening is still young.

It’s a full-moon night – a giant moon stares at me from the open window to my left as if to check if I am berating it in this letter. Perhaps she thinks the earth’s residents gossip more about her blemish than her jyotsna. A lone bird calls to dispel the shore’s quietude. The river is still, no boat sails on it; the forest on the other side spreads its solemn shadow on the water. This massive moonlit sky looks a touch hazy – the way things appear when drowsy eyes try to stay awake.

Tomorrow onwards, evenings will begin getting darker again; as I cross this small river after completing my kutcherry work, I will notice a slight separation between me and my beloved away from home. Could the one who had unveiled to me her large and mysterious heart be wondering if all that self-revelation was prudent enough and thus pull back the curtain to her heart again?

Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness.

But today is a full-moon night – this is the first purnima of this year’s spring, and so I record its story in writing. Perchance I might remember this still night – complete with that lone bird’s call and the gleam of the light on the boat anchored to that bank; this clear outline of the river, that coating of a quasi-dark forest and that detached, indifferent, pallid sky – after a long time…

(Jyotsna: Moonlight; Purnima: Full-moon night)

***

105

Shajadpur

July 7, 1893

This is a small village. Meandering through broken ghaats, a tin-roofed bazaar, granaries with split bamboo fencing, bamboo clumps, mango-jackfruit-palm-shimul-banana-akondo-bherenda-yam trees huddled in a bush, huge boats with raised masts anchored on the river banks, paddy submerged in water, and half-soaked jute fields, I reached Shajadpur last evening. This is going to be my abode for a while now. After spending days in the boat, it’s lovely to step into a house in Shajadpur. It’s wonderful to discover the freedom of being able to move around and stretch one’s limb at will and the impact it has on one’s mental health.

This morning, the sun is beaming from time to time, a wind is blowing swiftly, tamarisk and lychee trees are sashaying and rustling in a sway, a variety of birds are calling out in as many different ways to enliven the forest’s morning assembly. Sitting in this large, companion-less bright and open second-floor room, I am delighted to see a row of boats on the canal and, across it, a village flanked by trees on both sides. On this side, moderate activity guides the movements of a nearby locality. The workflow of a village isn’t rushed, and yet, neither is it inert or lifeless. Work and rest seem to walk hand in hand here.

Ferry boats sail on, passengers walk along the canal with umbrellas in their hands, women dip rice-filled wicker baskets in the water to wash the grain, farmers carrying bundles of jute on their heads head towards the haat, two men rest a log on the ground and crack it with axes for firewood, a carpenter upturns a fishing boat to repair it with a chisel, the village mongrel wanders around aimlessly, a few cows lazily sit on the ground and ward off flies by shaking their ears and tails before ingesting their lunch of the monsoon grass. When crows annoy them excessively by sitting on their backs, they turn their heads just a few times to register their protest.

The sounds of this place – the monotony of cracking wood, the cheer of unclothed children in play, the plaintive high-pitched song of a cowboy, the sloshing of oars, the shrill drone of the oil-grinding block – don’t create any dissonance when they combine with bird calls and rustling  of leaves. In fact, all of it is like a peaceful dream sequence of a bigger sonata, a bit in the manner of Chopin, albeit attuned in an expansive yet controlled composition.

My mind brims with sunlight and all these sounds; I better conclude this letter and soak in it for a while.

(Ghaat: River bank; Haat: Village market)

Image courtesy: theculturetrip.com

Notes of Eternity: Rabindranath Tagore

                                                                                                                          Calcutta |May 2, 1895

A nahabat recital can be heard playing somewhere today. A morning nahabat makes the heart quiver strangely. I haven’t been able to discern the significance of the unspeakable state that envelopes one’s mind when listening to music. And yet, every time the mind attempts to dissect that state. I have noticed that whenever beautiful music plays, the moment its intoxication hits the soul, this world of life and death, this land of arrivals and departures, this world of work, of light and darkness recedes into a distance — as if across a vast Padma River — from where everything appears as if it were only a picture.

road nature trees branches

To us, our everyday world doesn’t always appear to be the most well balanced. A tiny fraction of our life might seem disproportionately huge, our hunger and thirst, daily squabbles, rest and labour, petty annoyances besmirch the present moment. Music, with its beautiful intrinsic equilibrium, can, within moments make the world stand in a perspective where the small, transient imbalances disappear. With music, a whole, vast and eternal balance transforms the entire world into a mere image, and man’s life and death, laughter and tears, past and future land in the present to play in one’s ears as the meditative rhythm of poetry. With that, the intensity of our personal tendencies decrease, we become puny and immerse ourselves without strain into the immensity of music.

Small and artificial social ties are useful to function in the society, yet music and other evolved art forms instantly show us their insignificance, making every art somewhat antisocial. This is why listening to a good poem or song quickens our hearts, tearing asunder social formalities and igniting in the mind a struggle that seeks the freedom of eternal beauty. Anything beautiful stirs in us a conflict between the fleeting and the permanent, causing us a certain inexplicable pain.

Poona | May 6, 1895

Nahabat: A temple music tower. Musicians sit on the upper story and play during festivals and sometimes at the time of daily worship. (Source)

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Afternoons in Bengal Countryside ~ Rabindranath Tagore

                                    Shazadpur,
                                    September 5, 1894

After spending a long time in the boat, it feels wonderful to have suddenly arrived at the Shazadpur house. Light and air streams in unrestrained through the large windows and doors — wherever I look, I see green branches of trees and hear bird call. The moment I step out to the southern verandah, all the veins of my brain fill with the fragrance of Kamini flowers. All of a sudden I realize a hunger lurked within me for an expansive sky — being here has fulfilled it completely.

I am the sole master of four large rooms — I sit with all the doors open. The inspiration and motivation I receive to write here is unlike any other place. A living essence of the outside world enters me unhindered through the open doors — the light and the sky and the air and the sounds and the smells and the waves of green mingle with the passions of my mind and create innumerable stories. Particularly, the afternoons here have a deep spell. The sun’s heat, the silence, the quiet, calls of birds, especially the crow’s and an extended period of leisure make me pensive and eager.

Shantiniketan 036

I don’t know why I have a feeling that Arabian stories are made of afternoons like these filled with golden sunshine. Those Persian and Arabian lands of Damascus, Samarkand, Bukhara…those grape clusters, rose gardens, the nightingale’s songs, Shiraz wines, desert paths, rows of camels, horse-riding wayfarers, a clear source of water amidst a thick curtain of date trees…cities with narrow royal lanes festooned with awnings, a shopkeeper wearing a turban and comfortable, loose-fitting clothes — selling melons and mewa at the end of the street…a massive royal palace by the roadside with incense smell wafting out of it, a huge mattress covered with kimkhwāb placed by the window…Amina, Zubeidi and Sufi wear zari footwear, wide pajamas and colourful corsets as they inhale smoke rising off a curled hubble-bubble near their feet, at the door, a habshi wearing flashy clothes stands guard…and in this mysterious, unfamiliar faraway land, in a wealth-filled, spectacular yet eerie royal palace, thousands of stories — possible and impossible — are being created out of the laughter and tears, hopes and anxieties of humans.

These afternoons I spend in Shazadpur are fabled afternoons. I remember writing the story “Postmaster” sitting at the table fully engrossed right at this hour. As I wrote, the light around me, the breeze and the shivering tree branches all added their language to it. There are few joys that come close to creating something close to one’s heart by being immersed in one’s surroundings. This morning I became inclined to write something on limericks and could become entirely involved in it, which brought me immense delight. Limericks make for a free country unbounded by rules and laws — like the world of clouds. Unfortunately, the land that rules and laws dominate is never far behind to follow one. As I wrote, a sudden insurrection of officials stormed in, blowing away my cloud land. When that ended, it was time to eat. There’s nothing more sloth-inducing than eating a full meal in the afternoon. It overwhelms one’s imagination and the spirit’s higher callings. Bengalis are unable to enjoy the deep intrinsic beauty of an afternoon because of their predilection to eat sumptuous meals at that time and then closing the door to smoke on tobacco and slide into a satiating slumber. This is what makes them hale and hearty. But nowhere do quiet, desolate afternoons spread over in the sweeping, silent manner in which they do over Bengal’s uniformly limitless plain crop fields.

Afternoons like these have haunted me since childhood. Back then, no one used to be in the outer third-storey quarters; I alone sat in the angular couch with the door wide open and warm breeze blowing in. My entire day went by with vivid imagination and unspeakable desires.

Satara
September 10, 1894

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

Letter to Niece ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Shilaidaha, June 16, 1892

The more you spend time on your own on a river or in an open space in a village, the more it becomes clear that nothing could be grander or more beautiful than to simply do your daily work with ease. From the grass in the field to the star in the sky, all things are doing only that. Because nothing is making a desperate attempt to cross its limits, there is such immense peace and beauty in nature; and yet, whatever each thing does isn’t all that valueless — the grass has to use all its energy to remain grass; it must engage the very end of its root to the ground to soak in the nectar. The earth is so resplendently lush only because the grass doesn’t try to overstep its boundary or ignore its routine work so it can become a banyan tree. In reality, it is through fulfilling daily small tasks and duties, not through grandiose initiatives or overstatements that the human society maintains its grace and harmony. Whether it is art or valour — nothing is complete in itself. On the other hand, even a small act of duty contains contentment and wholeness. To sit and continuously gripe, contemplate, consider every situation to be unworthy of oneself — all the while letting time and small and big obligations slip one by — nothing could be worse than that.

© Bhaswati Ghosh

When one resolves to and believes in one’s ability to do all tasks up to one’s capacity with truth, strength and a full heart amid all pleasure and pain, one’s entire life is filled with happiness and all petty sorrows disappear.

Calcutta
June 17, 1892.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Book review: How I Became a Tree

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Title: How I Became a Tree
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Co.

PrintI was in primary school when I first heard trees talk. On my way to school every day as I sat by the window of our school bus, leaf-laden branches of trees sashayed as the bus zipped past them. I was convinced this was the trees’ way of sending me off to school with a bunch of good wishes. On still, humid days, when my green friends didn’t seem as enthusiastic, I feared about the mood of the day facing me. Though brief, this moment of intimacy with the trees lining the one-way separators on South Delhi roads, was crucial for the emotional subsistence of a lonely child like me. For Sumana Roy, the necessity of this bonding – with plant life, with trees, swaying or still – is so acute that she wishes to morph into one. And sort of does. How I Became a Tree is the story of that astonishing transformation.

But why this overwhelming desire to become a tree? Roy’s discontent with her human form is not so much biological as it is psychogenic. The two corollaries of modern life that disturb her most – excessive noise and speed – are the very things trees counterpoise with defiant ease. Early on in her intuitive journey, the author discovers tree time – a moment distilled in past- and future-less clarity. Trees teach her to let go of her slavish relationship with conceptual (man-made) time and relax in the moment. She notices the impartial kindness of the tree – equal in its dissemination of oxygen, shade, flower, and fruits to the gardener as well as the woodcutter.

The need for association with nature isn’t new. For long, it has been the favoured route for those on a spiritual quest. There are extensive records of sages and philosophers renouncing the material trip to go inside forests and sit by lakes, in search of answers only solitude can retrieve. What makes Roy’s quest deliciously different is her part-lover, part-parent, and part-playmate relationship with trees. She even becomes a tree sleuth – recording their “vocalizations” – “I had, in frustration with industrial noise and human verbosity, mistaken trees as silent creatures. My experiments with the sound recorder had brought about a new realization – that trees shared a natural sound with people.” She engages with trees in other interesting ways – by getting X-rays of tree trunks and by turning dead trees into sculptures. All these experiments grow deeper the roots of Roy’s conviction about the interchangeability of trees and human figures. She begins listening to human voices in relation to their tonal proximity to the sound of leaves in the wind. Her own skin becomes the bark of a tree and she imagines her bones getting rearranged for her to acquire a tree form.

In loving trees, Roy doesn’t forget the shadow world. In fact, by her own admission, her relationship with trees is shaped largely by their shadows. In a chapter curiously titled A Brief History of Shadows, she rues how shadows are unceremoniously left out of history books and archives and, through personal reminiscences and her reading of Roy Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, she eloquently makes the case for studying shadows for the things they can reveal. For me, though, her observation of what tree shadows withhold, or rather, erase, is of even more stunning import. “…The shadows of trees obliterate specificity, the colour of bark and leaves and flower and fruit. Just like the shadows of humans do not reflect race, class, or religion.”

As her disenchantment with modern industrial routine grows, the author is compelled to examine the stitches of mythology and scriptures, literature, philosophy, and art – to find threads of the human-tree convertibility phenomenon. Greek and Roman mythology tell her how women turned into trees to escape violence, human violence. Reading these episodes chillingly remind one, as they do Roy, of young Dalit women being raped and then hung from trees in present-day India. But she also finds “sahrydayas” (Sanskrit for soulmate or sharer of the soul) – humans who have shared her own kinship with trees. One of them is the artist Nandalal Bose who, while articulating his thoughts on drawing trees, remarkably compared their features and even personalities to those of humans.

Then there is Rabindranath Tagore – with both his extensive work with trees in Santiniketan and his personal anaclisis to plants. Like most plant lovers, he misses his plant relatives when he’s away on a trip and writes letters to human caretakers to look after them. It is only natural then for the universe of his writing to be populated by plant metaphors. Roy sees in his works illustrations of trees becoming doubles of humans and gardens turning into both accomplices in aiding stolen love and partners in avenging lost love. The chapter, “Studying Nature”, brings to the reader Tagore’s organic vision for spreading the joy of nature among the students of his school-cum-university, Visva-Bharati. The focus of the nature study module isn’t so much on the science of ecology, as Roy discovers, but on fostering an easy kinship with nature from which the industrial machinery threatens to pull the children away. “What his students inherited through his course was a sense of trees as participant, friend, and neighbour, in the ongoing drama of life…,” concludes Roy with endearing empathy.

For a tree lover in the pursuance of her treehood, the journey cannot be complete without entering a forest. Part VII of How I Became a Tree, titled “Lost in the Forest” was a personal delight for me. I have experienced several lost-in-the-forest moments myself, richer in the losing every time. Roy’s own love affair with the forest bears this out with succulent relish. She argues how the very act of walking inside the forest has to be an act of total surrender – one must intentionally lose oneself when surrounded by the “paralyzing restfulness” of a forest. She returns to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s forest-centred novel Aranyak to unearth the mystery of man’s tense relationship with the forest. It is at once a place for finding repose as it is a resource to be exploited. Staying inside a forest all by herself enables Roy to experience the commune of trees, their shunning of individual prominence. In this, she recognizes her own treeness, given her indifference to fame and its exhibitionism.

Roy finds more soul sharers – as a plant parent in the polymath scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose – who conducted numerous experiments to prove plants can feel and communicate; in the Buddha whose persona is essentially inseparable from the Bodhi tree under which he’s believed to have found enlightenment; and in poets, philosophers, and photographers who saw embedded in the barks and branches of trees reflections of their own self. And that is how Roy eventually turns into a tree. She imagines herself to be the Ashoka tree – A-shoka, sorrowless, as she segments the tree name.

On a personal note, Roy has taught me to love plant life in a deeper, more joyous way. Shortly before I wrote this, my partner took out a leafy indoor plant to the patio to feed it sunlight (as Roy would put it). The delicate plant died from the sudden shock. I have mourned the loss of plants before, but this was post How I Became a Tree, and I bawled my lungs out. Then, once the tears let up, I remembered I had once snipped a part of the plant and placed it in a jar of water, where it grew roots. I brought that part out of the jar and planted it in the pot that now carried the dead roots. It was almost as if someone had nudged me to do this – to bring the plant back to life.

That’s when I realized Sumana Roy isn’t merely a tree; she’s a plant whisperer.

How I Became a Tree is available on Amazon India.

 

Call for submissions: The Everyday and Other Tagore

Tagore addressing his tenantsCAFE DISSENSUS

UPDATE: The issue is now available here.

Issue 19:  October 2015: The Everyday and Other Tagore [Last date for submission: 30 September, 2015; Date of publication: October, 2015]

Send submissions to: bhashwati@gmail.com

There is the Rabindranath Tagore we all know – the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, the founder of Visva-Bharati University, the grand literary canon of India, and the towering figure without whom Bengal just can’t do.

And there’s the other Rabindranath Tagore, the one who forms the leitmotif of the activities of a social worker working with children from marginal communities in Delhi. Tagore shows up in their handcrafted embroideries, in the food they make, in their art and craft projects, in the plays they enact, and in the worldview they imbibe, unbeknownst to themselves.

Tagore comes alive in the song an unknown Baul fakir sings in a village in Bangladesh, “Jawkhon porbe na mor payer chinho ei baate,” (When my footprints are no longer seen on this path). The words haunt the listener with the singer-poet’s elegiac visions of a time after he is gone. It’s penned and composed by Tagore, yes, but the fakir makes it his own, with his distinctly carefree, unchained rendition.

In a very urban school in Delhi, a principal strives to give her students a taste of Tagore’s inclusive education paradigm. She doesn’t have the space to provide the open-air classrooms of Visva-Bharati, but she opens the doors of art, literature, music, dance, and drama to her pupils, so they can breathe free beyond the confines of a book’s pages.

In one of his most powerful poems (Patraput, 15), Tagore declares himself an outcast, one who has renounced the bondage of religion and ritual. He likens himself to Bauls and their search for the man of the heart, a quest to find divinity in humanity, not in external or imagined symbols.

This is the other, everyday Tagore – internalized in universes that don’t often feature in scholarly discourses.

This issue of Café Dissensus invites fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or multimedia works on the theme of The Everyday and Other Tagore.

Along with written pieces, we are also open to audio-visual content. If you would like to do a short interview (5-15 minutes), please feel free to send that to us. If you send us the rush copy, we can edit. However, it would be better if you do the editing and send to us.

Your submissions should not exceed 1500 words. If a particular piece deserves more space, we are willing to go beyond the word limit. Please email them to bhashwati@gmail.com. Also, provide a brief 2-3 line bio at the end of your piece. Submissions will be accepted until 30 September, 2015.

Photo courtesy: http://permacultureambassadors.blogspot.ca/

Komal Gandhar by Rabindranath Tagore

DSC02346

I call her Komal Gandhar

in my mind.

She would sit stunned if she learned about it,

“What does it mean?” she’d ask smilingly

That it is unfathomable is its most certain meaning.

The world is about work and vocation,

about different shades of good and bad—

Things that connect her to others.

I watch, sitting by her side

how she infuses her surroundings with a peculiar melody.

She knows not her own self.

At the spot where her Beloved’s altar is placed

an agony-incense burns by His feet.

From there, a shadow of smoke engulfs the eyes,

like clouds enveloping the moon—

masking the smile a little.

Her voice carries a fading strain of melancholy.

She is unaware that it’s the same strain that

binds the strings of her life’s tanpura.

The notes of Bhairavi permeate all her

words and actions.

I cannot conclude why.

That’s the reason I call her Komal Gandhar

It is hard to comprehend why

teardrops glide into the heart

when she lifts her eyes.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh