“অদৃষ্টরে শুধালেম, চিরদিন পিছে
অমোঘ নিষ্ঠুর বলে কে মোরে ঠেলিছে?
সে কহিল, ফিরে দেখো। দেখিলাম থামি
সম্মুখে ঠেলিছে মোরে পশ্চাতের আমি।”
- রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর
The life of Rabindranath Tagore, pre-eminent intellectual voice of Bengalis on both sides of the political divide, drew to a close on 22 Sravana in terms of the Bengali calendar, a date which coincides with 7 August 1941. As a tribute to him and in recognition of his formidable, purposeful presence in the lives of Bengalis across the world, here are the excerpts from his autobiographical work, My Life in My Words.
I still remember the first magic touch of literature which I experienced when I was a child and was made to struggle across my lesson in a first primer strewn with isolated words smothered under the burden of spelling. The morning hour appeared to me like a once illumined page grown dusty and faded, discoloured into irrelevant marks, smudges and gaps, wearisome in its moth-eaten meaninglessness. Suddenly I came to a sentence of combined words which may be translated thus:
It rains, the leaves tremble.
At once I came to a world in which I recovered my full meaning. If it were a sentence that informed me of a mere fact, it would fail to rouse up my mind from its boredom. The world of facts pleasant or unpleasant has its restricted range, but freedom is given to us by the world of reality, the reality which is truth made living, which has to be the same assurance of its entity as I myself have to my own self.
Shortly after my birth, my father took to constantly traveling about. So it is no exaggeration to say that in my early childhood I hardly knew him. He would now and then come back home all of a sudden, and with him came foreign servants with whom I felt extremely eager to make friends …Anyhow, when my father came, we would be content with wandering round about his entourage and in the company of his servants. We did not reach his immediate presence …
When my father was at home, his room was on the second floor. How often I watched him from a distance, from my hiding place at the head of the staircase. The sun had not yet risen, and he sat on the roof, silent as an image of stone, his hands folded on his lap.
When my mother died I was quite a child. She had been ailing for quite a long time, and we did not even know when her malady had taken a fatal turn. She used all along to sleep on a separate bed in the same room with us. Then, in the course of her illness, she was taken for a boat trip on the river, and on her return a room on the third storey of the inner apartments was set apart for her.
On the night she died, we were fast asleep in our room downstairs. At what hour I cannot tell, our old nurse came running in weeping and crying: ‘Oh my little ones, you have lost your all!’ My sister-in-law rebuked her and led her away, to save us the sudden shock at dead of night. Half awakened by her words, I felt my heart sink within me, but could not make out what had happened. When in the morning we were told of her death, I could not realize all that it meant for me.
As we came out into the verandah we saw my mother laid on a bedstead in the courtyard. There was nothing in her appearance which showed death to be terrible. The aspect which death wore in that morning light was as lovely as a calm and peaceful sleep, and the gulf between life and its absence was not brought home to us.
My sister-in-law was a great lover of literature. She did not read simply to kill time, but the Bengali books she read filled her whole mind. I was a partner in her literary enterprises. She was a devoted admirer of The Dream Journey. So was I, the more particularly as, having been brought up in the atmosphere of its creation, its beauties had become intertwined with every fibre of my heart …
At this time, Biharilal Chakravarti’s series of songs called ‘Sarada Mangal’ were coming out in the Aryadarshan. My sister-in-law was greatly taken with the sweetness of these lyrics. Most of them she knew by heart. She used often to invite the poet to our house, and had embroidered for him a cushion-seat with her own hands. This gave me the opportunity of making friends with him. He came to have a great affection for me, and I took to dropping in at his house at all times of the day, morning, noon or evening. His heart was as large as his body, and a halo of fancy used to surround him like a poetic astral body, which seemed to be his truer image. He was always full of true artistic joy, and whenever I have been to him I have breathed in my share of it.
Before coming to England, I had imagined like a fool that this small island would be filled with Gladstone’s oratory, Max Mueller’s explications of the Vedas, Tyndall’s scientific theories, Carlyle’s deep thoughts and Bain’s philosophy. I suppose I was lucky to be disappointed. Just like anywhere else women here are preoccupied with fashions, men with their jobs, and politics is a great source of excitement.
Women want to know whether you went to the ball, if you liked the concert, they will tell you that there is a new actor, that a band will be playing tomorrow somewhere, etc. Men want to know what you think of the Afghan War, they will tell you how Londoners honoured the Marquis of Lorne; they will tell you that the day is nice, that yesterday was miserable. Women here play the piano, they sing, they sit by the fireside reading novels, they keep the visitor engaged in conversation and, occasionally, they flirt. Unmarried women keep themselves active in public life and speak up on public issues. They can be heard at Temperance meetings or at the Workingmen’s Society. But they don’t go to work like the men, and there is no question of their raising children.
I have tried to experience the wealth of beauty in European literature. When I was young I approached Dante, unfortunately through a translation. I utterly failed, and felt it my pious duty to stop, so Dante remained closed to me.
I also wanted to know German literature and, by reading Heine in translation, I thought I had caught a glimpse of the beauty there …
Then I tried Goethe. But that was too ambitious. With the help of the little German I had learnt, I went through Faust. I believe I found my entrance to the place, not like one who has keys for all the doors, but as a casual visitor who is tolerated in some guest room, comfortable but not intimate. Properly speaking, I do not know my Goethe, and in the same way many other great luminaries are dark to me. This is as it should be. Man cannot reach the shrine if he does not make the pilgrimage.
This was the time when my acquaintance with Bankim Babu began. My first sight of him was a matter of long before. The old students of Calcutta University had then started an annual reunion, of which Babu Chandranath Basu was the leading spirit …
While wandering about in the crush at the students’ reunion, I suddenly came across a figure which at once struck me as distinguished beyond that of all the others and who could not have possibly been lost in any crowd …
After that I often longed to see him, but could not get an opportunity. At last one day, when he was Deputy Magistrate of Howrah, I made bold to call on him. We met, and I tried my best to make conversation. But I somehow felt greatly abashed while returning home, as if I had acted like a raw and bumptious youth in thus thrusting myself upon him unasked and unintroduced.
Living in the villages of Shelidah and Patisar, I had made my first direct contact with rural life. Zamindari was then my calling. The tenants came to me with their joys and sorrows, complaints and requests, through which the village discovered itself to me. On the one hand was the external scene of rivers, meadows, rice fields, and mud huts sheltering under trees. On the other was the inner story of the people. I came to understand their troubles in the course of my duties.
I am an urban creature, cityborn. My forefathers were among the earliest inhabitants of Calcutta and my childhood years felt no touch of the village. When I started to look after our estates, I feared that my duties would be irksome. I was not used to such work —- keeping accounts, collecting revenue, credit and debit —- and my ignorance lay heavy on my mind. I could not imagine that, tied down to figures and accounts, I might yet remain human and natural.
The schoolmasters of this place paid me a visit yesterday.
They stayed on and on, while for the life of me I could not find a word to say. I managed a question or so every five minutes, to which they offered the briefest replies; and then I sat vacantly, twirling my pen, and scratching my head.
At last I ventured on a question about the crops, but being schoolmasters they knew nothing whatever about crops.
About their pupils I had already asked them everything I could think of, so I had to start over again: How many boys had they in the school? One said eighty, another said a hundred and seventy five. I hoped this might lead to an argument, but no, they made up their difference.
Why, after an hour and a half, they should have thought of taking leave, I cannot tell. They might have done so with as good a reason an hour earlier, or, for the matter of that, twelve hours later! Their decision was arrived at empirically, entirely without method.
Last night I had dinner with the poet Yeats. He read out from the prose translations of my poems. He read beautifully, and in the correct tone. I have hardly any confidence in my English —- but he definitely said that anybody who thought my English needed improving had no sense of literature.
My work has been received with great enthusiasm here, so much so that I can barely take it all in. I feel they expect nothing much from our part of the world, and that is why they are so overwhelmed. Anyway, Yeats himself has undertaken to edit my poems, write an introduction to them, and see to their publication. I feel very elated by all this but also a bit overwhelmed myself. I do not enjoy being in this limelight and want to escape to Germany.
I am still suffering from Nobel Prize notoriety and I do not know what nursing home there is where I can go and get rid of this my latest and greatest trouble. To deprive me of my seclusion is like shelling my oyster —- the rude touch of the curious world is all over me. I am pining for the shade of obscurity.
I know that Bengal takes pride in education. I am also sure that Bengal will not reject Western scholarship. Whatever the politics, Bengalis, more than all other Indians, have an inborn respect for learning. Even the very poor among them long to go to school. Bengalis know that they will not attain social status without education. That is why even the poorest widow in Bengal undertakes every hardship possible for her child’s education.
This world has been my very own for a long time but, like one loved from time immemorial, is forever new to me …
I can remember a time when many ages ago a young earth emerged from a bath in the sea to welcome the young sun. It was then that I too sprung out of this young earth as a tree blossoming with life …
I have no anxiety about the world of nature. The sun does not wait to be trimmed by me.
But from the early morning all my thoughts are occupied by this little world of myself. Its importance is owing to the fact that I have a world given to me which is mine. It is great because I have the power to make it worthy of its relationship with me; it is great because by its help I can offer my own hospitality to the God of all the world.
Source: The Daily Star