My Tagore: A Lesson on Endurance

How the poet still gives us the strength to live life

A few days ago, I read in an article about what has been among my most favourite short stories by Tagore for the longest time – that it was dictated out loud by the poet at a time he was too frail to write on his own. If you’ve read Robibar (Sunday), you will know why this is so incredibly unbelievable. On his deathbed, he experiments to produce something that is significantly different from most of his previous works in terms of storytelling and writing style.

Poet Joy Goswami said about Tagore – “It has never been necessary for me to acknowledge Rabindranath. Like we never acknowledge sunshine. It is there, as true and obvious as the air and the water around us.” Tagore is imbibed into our lives before we know it. We grow up learning his songs and singing them on every occasion. He had once said that even if his poems and novels are lost one day, he shall live through the songs – and truly, it is his songs that have most strongly stood the test of time. For most of us in Bengal, our first introduction to our language has been with his book on the Bengali alphabet, Shohoj Paath, that he wrote for children. During the holidays, on hot summer afternoons, my mother would read to me his poems for children, making memories for a lifetime. He was a part of growing up, attached to tiny, significant parts of my life without me realizing it. The photo of the old, bearded man was so familiar to me, that for the longest time I was sure he was someone from the family I hadn’t met yet.

But I did meet him. Growing up, when lines from the songs I heard as a kid came back suddenly – with very different meanings, like a familiar breeze on a new land. When his words became my own, because I knew I would carry them in my heart for the rest of my life – I met him then. The poet tells us:1

Bipode more rokkha koro, e nohe mor prarthona

Bipode ami na jeno kori bhoy

Let me not pray to be sheltered from danger,

but to be fearless in facing them

A young Tagore

This is what he has taught us all his life. To not bow down to obstacles in the way, to not surrender to the Almighty, praying to be saved from threat, but to struggle till the end. His greatest lesson for us has been to help us live with our own selves, something that seems to be getting more difficult for us with every passing day. He had a fiercely strong understanding of his own self and a mind that was clear in its thoughts – both of which are evident in most of his writings. At a time when he was battling with his own mind, he wrote to C. F. Andrews: “I feel that I am on the brink of a breakdown.” In a series of letters, he described his feelings, most of which indicated depression. But soon, he wrote:

“The cure for all the illness of life is stored in the inner depth of life itself, the access to which becomes possible when we are alone.  The solitude is a world in itself, full of wonders and resources unthought of…”

Conquering pain – a recurrent thought in his poems and songs. Even in love, his words remain the same. There is no yearning for what is futile, but a silent withdrawal instead. He wishes to set her free, let her find happiness elsewhere, for “My treasure is your existence in my heart – I do not want more.”2 Tagore wrote several poems and songs that have been classified as ‘devotional’. I believe, most of them can be effortlessly translated as love songs. This is perhaps because he turned even the sincerest spiritual calls into deeply personal experiences. His Almighty wasn’t someone to pray to, but a friend to talk to in times of crisis.

But to me, what has remained the most magnificent part of Tagore, beyond all his writings, are his manuscripts. To make art out of mistakes, to give birth to a poem within a poem – what would you call this, if not the greatest lesson one can learn in life? The first appearance of decorative motifs stemming from corrections in his manuscript appeared around 1904. Gradually, they became more and more elaborate, with an existence of their own that went beyond the text.

From errors to art: A manuscript

Tagore’s association with death had been more than what seems to be the limit of endurance. From Kadambari, his sister-in-law and closest confidante to Samindranath, his youngest son, Tagore experienced loss, time and again, almost like a test to prove his tolerance. Yet, he bounced back every time. Sadness, to him, was too personal to be shared with the world, too fragile to be stretched and prolonged. After Samindranath’s death, he wrote, “The night Sami passed away, I wished with all my heart that his soul wanders boundlessly in space, that my grief doesn’t hold him back.”

His thoughts on death come back often in his works and personal letters. We often find contrasting views – sometimes accepting it as the greatest of all truths, but also writing, “And I will say before I leave, I am greater than death.”3 In Bhanusingher Padabali, a collection of verses he wrote in the Braj language when he was around seventeen, we come across the lines, “Maran re, tuhu mama Shyam saman”, comparing death to Lord Krishna, the lover. His mind traversed vast diversifications of thought.

In the midst of chaos, beyond all sadness, we take respite in Tagore, who remains like the cool shade of a Banyan tree. We run to him for peace, to share our grief, to calm down a troubled heart. To lead the way from the darkness of our minds to a ray of hope. I end with his lines on the eternal, tranquil truth:4

আছে দুঃখ, আছে মৃত্যু, বিরহদহন লাগে।

          তবুও শান্তি, তবু আনন্দ, তবু অনন্ত জাগে ॥

তবু প্রাণ নিত্যধারা,      হাসে সূর্য চন্দ্র তারা,

          বসন্ত নিকুঞ্জে আসে বিচিত্র রাগে ॥

          তরঙ্গ মিলায়ে যায় তরঙ্গ উঠে,

         কুসুম ঝরিয়া পড়ে কুসুম ফুটে।

নাহি ক্ষয়, নাহি শেষ,   নাহি নাহি দৈন্যলেশ–

          সেই পূর্ণতার পায়ে মন স্থান মাগে ॥

Grief there is, and Death; Partings char.

Yet Peace and Bliss and the Infinite stir.

Flows life ceaselessly, beam the sun, moon and stars

In striking tints and hues Spring shows up in bowers.

Waves ebb waves rise.

Wilt flowers and bloom buds.

Decays not, ends not, never ever depletes,

Unto that wholeness the mind begs a retreat.

Translations:

  1. Rabindranath Tagore
  2. ‘Amaro porano jaha chay’, Anjan Ganguly via www.gitabitan.com
  3. ‘Mrityunjoy’, Kumud Biswas via www.boloji.com
  4. ‘Ache dukkho, ache mrityu’, Sumana Roy
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