Milk Teeth, a Virus, and Tagore

(Readers’ submissions: Celebrating one year of the Indigenous Blog)

By Shayeri Bhattacharyya

It’s a cloudy June morning.
My cousin brother makes a face at his breakfast as I slurp on my thick milk tea. This is the first time, probably, that he is choosing something, or someone unknown over good old luchi and shaada aloor torkari (poori and rich potato curry). “Amra kokhon shuru korbo?” (“When will we start?”), he impatiently asks amidst a sluggish chewing session, and a very expressive “Aage khawa sesh koro!” (“Finish eating this first!”) from my aunt follows suit. A burst of nostalgic laughter escapes my lips. Today is Birpurush Day for him, and for me, all over again.

My brother is a little over five years old. The other day, he had run into a video clipping of the ‘Birpurush’ (The Hero) poem being recited by a kid with the finest precision, and that’s when he had come crying to me for help. He loves listening to me singing ‘Chhaya Ghonaichhe Bone Bone‘ on a perfect rainy night, when he cannot fall asleep despite frequent mellow rebukes. Does he know about Rabindranath? Not really. Has he heard his name? Yes, several times. He wishes to know him more. I’m glad he does.

মনে করো যেন বিদেশ ঘুরে

মাকে নিয়ে যাচ্ছি অনেক দূরে ।

তুমি যাচ্ছ পালকিতে মা চড়ে

দরজা দুটো একটুকু ফাঁক করে,…

(Just suppose for once –
I was travelling with my mother
In a foreign land
And going to a far away place.
Mother, you were in a palanquin
With its doors slightly ajar)¹

I read on as he looks at me intently, stopping me here and there to understand a word, phrase, or an entire sentence. My childhood comes back to me in reverberation – days of reading Tagore on winter afternoons form an ever-clear picture in front of me. We take a short break as my phone buzzes with a call. The little one seizes the opportunity and grabs the fat book, albeit very carefully, puts it on his lap, and tries to read the lines one after the other. We resume shortly, and a good two hours later, a very satisfied brother-sister duo ushers out of a room that had become no less than a treasure island for some hours. “Amio konodin birpurush hobo?” (“Will I ever be a hero?”), he asks me as we sit for lunch. I pat his head with an assuring smile.

My little brother, like many, many other children, is prey to the situation that Covid-19 has turned the world into since 2020. His very first day of school began online, sans colourful classrooms, high-pitched persistent crying, and the little excitement that comes along with the experience. On being asked which school he is in by a distant relative, he replied that he is a student of “online school”, without sparing a second thought to what he had just said. This broke my heart. Children do not deserve this cruelty.

I believe it is only and only Tagore who, even after generations of not being physically present, manages to make things a lot bearable for all age groups alike. Over the years, as I have grown up, I have learnt how important it is to question what is deemed sacrosanct through Achalayatan, saw the true colours of rebellion through Raktakarabi, felt the angst of separation through Sesher Kabita, and understood the beauty of human relationships through Chaturanga. However, his most talked about work right now would inevitably be Dakghar because of the uncanny resemblance that it bears with today’s world. The ubiquity of everything that is life and its relative importance finds the best-suited space in this man’s world probably because of the unhindered presence of it all in his own journey. Grief, anger, joy, pain, guilt, fear – the man went through it all.

2021 is nearing its end now, and Covid-19 has still not taken its leave. But, like the vaccine, there has been progress in the house as well. My brother can now read the first six lines of the poem without looking at it. He saw me sing on this year’s Baishey Shrabon (Tagore’s death anniversary) with a look in his eyes that made my parents have tears in theirs. I’m glad he is beginning to love the old man and know him better. I’m glad he’s growing with him, like I did. Like I still am, like I always will.

“Did he know that Covid would come someday?”, he asks me one day.

“God knows! Why this question, all of a sudden?” 

Ma had said that day while explaining that he had written this!”-

এমনি দুই পাখি দোঁহারে ভালোবাসে, তবুও কাছে নাহি পায়

খাঁচার ফাঁকে ফাঁকে পরশে মুখে মুখে, নীরবে চোখে চোখে চায়

(Both love each other, unable to come close yet.

Beaks touch through cage gaps, silently eyes connect.)²

I try to hide the teardrop coming down my face and look away from him. He is growing up, I realize.

This morning, my brother’s first milk tooth comes loose and falls off while he is playing in his room. “Ma, ma! Look!”, he runs into a room full of startled adults. “Amar daant porechhe, dekho! Taale ki ami ebar birpurush hoye gechhi?” (“Look, my milk tooth has come off. Have I become like birpurush now, then?”) The grown-ups burst out into the most heartwarming laughter in days. The little one chimes in as well, with the most endearing toothless smile I have ever seen in my life.

Translations :

  1. ‘Birpurush’, Kumud Biswas: Source
  2. ‘Khachar Pakhi Chhilo’, Anjan Ganguly: Source

Shayeri Bhattacharyya is currently an undergraduate student at Jadavpur University. Apart from experimenting with food, she enjoys singing rabindrasangeet from time to time.

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