A Rainbow of Song
WHEN we visited Santiniketan in last May Rabindranath had just completed the eightieth year of his life in the shadow of a serious illness and amid the rejoicings of the whole of Bengal. We had heard that his suffering was acute and that his powers were failing him, and were, therefore, wondering how we would find him. Perhaps, he would speak no more than a few words, perhaps it would not be possible to sit at his feet with the old easy confidence. But all these misgivings were dispelled when we saw him. On the day of our arrival we saw him at dusk. He was sitting out in the open verandah, and he seemed tired and weak, as if faded out in the shadows of approaching night. When we saw him next morning he was sitting in the covered south verandah. He was wearing a yellow cloth but his upper garment was white, and by his side lay a plate with a little heap of bel flowers on it. Yes, his face was emaciated and his flame-like complexion pale. But when one looked at the wrist or the fist, one could still get a glimpse of the massive splendid body, solid with bone and muscle. Gone were the lovely locks that had always rolled down his neck like a lion’s mane, but the head was still as beautiful with its long, white curls parted in the middle. It seemed to me that his eyes had lost their piercing gaze, for it was with a gentle and tender look that his eyes rested on somebody. For this reason, he did not seem any longer to resemble a Mughal emperor, there was rather a subtle affinity with the portraits of Tolstoy in old age. Never before was Rabindranath so beautiful. Perhaps the burden of age and the torments of a disease were both necessary to achieve this beauty. The only poem which Bernard Shaw ever wrote was a gift to Ellen Terry on her birthday. ‘How is it’, Shaw wondered, ‘that while we all get older with every year, Ellen gets younger?’ One had only to look at the portraits of Rabindranath from boyhood onwards to be convinced that the older he grew, the more beautiful he became. Even a few years ago his face shone with a dazzling brilliance, every other face in crowded meetings would instantly pale the moment he entered. That, too, was beautiful, but the soft twilight-glow that plays on his face today is perhaps the highest point that beauty can reach.
But who would have said that he was ill! The moment we entered he started talking. His voice, we noticed, was fainter than ever before but his talk as splendid. He rested from time to time but never groped for a word, for the right word was always on his lips. He looked straight before him as he talked, but now and then cast sidewise glances at the listeners which did not, however, interrupt the flow of talk. That day he talked continuously for over an hour; we were bathed in an incredible, marvelous stream in which painting and music, life and literature, humour and tenderness were all blended in rich profusion and admirable proportion. He ill! Who could have thought of that! This luminous intellect, this passionate interest in all the great and little things of life, this kingly mastery over language- our hearts refused to associate all these with decay or infirmity of any kind. Yet, he was ill, very much so. His disease was not only painful it involved many little annoyances, too. Common men - and even many of those who are not so common - would have grown ill-tempered, harsh and slack, they would have gradually withdrawn from the external world and soon reached a stage where nothing but the disease mattered, for we have heard that even geniuses are unable to think of anything except the toothache when a tooth is really aching. But there was not the slightest stain in Rabindranath’s personality, the diamond was still flawless. He talked on all subjects, but never about his illness. So much so, he always avoided words like ‘illness’ or ‘disease’. All that he said was that he was ‘tired’ or that his ‘body-machine had gone out of order’. In his thoughts, his behaviour, in the conduct of his daily life nothing was loose, nothing shabby or stonely. Only two or three persons were allowed to nurse him intimately. As the strain on them was heavy there was an attempt to introduce new hands, but he was extremely reluctant to be tended by strangers or even by friends who were new to the task. The truth perhaps was that the very idea of being personally attended to was repellent to him and had always been so. Now, it was true, he had perforce to depend on others for most things and though he tolerated this situation just because it could not be helped, he wished to restrict the number of his nurses to as few as possible. Perhaps the very fact that he had got to be served in that way hurt his taste and feelings. A middle-aged professor, who had spent the last thirty years of his life at Santiniketan, once remarked that in his long career he had observed Gurudeva’s anger only on two occasions. The first time was when there was dirt on the plate in which his food was served. And on another occasion he had happened to notice one of the teachers lying in the verandah of his cottage while two young pupils were massaging his body. ‘Gurudeva was furious, we had never seen him like that.’ We heard many other anecslates???, each of which showed that, suffering as he was from a long and obstinate disease, his exquisite sensitiveness was as wide awake as ever. There were brilliant flashes of humor even when the physical pain was terrible and there was a general feeling of apprehensive gloom. As a patient he was very quiet, but not very docile, perhaps. He hated lying down in bed and had to be coaxed to retire. They would tell him that he must sleep now, and he would close his eyes while his feet would move to and fro. When the command was more emphatically repeated he would lie still and say, ‘Well then, I will now think. You can do all else, but you can’t rob me of my thoughts’. Doctors and nurses can do no more than help the body in combating disease, but there is no external remedy for the infection that a disease spreads to the mind, and in that field Rabindranath won every battle entirely on his own strength.
As we came out after seeing and hearing him, every time we felt anew that our whole lives had been blessed. His talk was a rainbow of song, a symphony of color. It was manna to the sensual ear as well as a charmer of the spirit. His infinite mastery over the Bengali language could not be comprehended unless one heard him talk. What flew from his lips was exactly the language he used in his later prose works, and he beat all his characters in the power of presenting a most commonplace thing in an extraordinary manner. As the words flowed, similes and metaphors blossomed like flowers, and there were sudden flashes of humor at the most unexpected moments. Many are familiar with his perfectly rounded golden voice and his firm yet delicate style of pronunciation; as a matter of fact, Bengali seemed to be a more powerful and much sweeter language when Rabindranath spoke it.
At that time we found Rabindranath occupying a suite on the ground floor of Udayan. The rooms faced south. Since his illness in 1940 he had become somewhat sensitive to heat, and so an air-conditioning plant had been installed in his bedroom. Not a large room, it was. Along the wall on one side was a long table with rows of bottles, phials and glasses on it. A bed, an easy chair, a few books in a little book-case and a few leather-covered backless cane seats for visitors- these were all the furniture. On the walls were two of his own pictures, a drawing of a horse by the Chinese painter Ju Peon and a Japanese cloud-scape. There was another, and a still smaller room, and that was all. The whole of the world, all the hills and plains and seas, cities, rivers and forests, all multitude and all solitude had converged in a couple of rooms with a verandah on either side. Such were the Poet’s last days.
And what about his life’s constant companion - his writing? The man who, since boyhood, had been writing millions of words in verse and prose could not hold the pen in the last months of his life and found it difficult even to put a signature. And yet the stream of words was ceaseless, all poems right up to those published in Janmadine were composed in his own hand, but after that he had perforce to abandon calligraphy. Finally he took to dictating and was not easily pleased with the draft. A single manuscript was revised many times over and still he remained doubtful.
We found him strangely modest about his own writings. However severe might be the oppression of failing flesh, he could never tolerate any looseness in his work. What a perfect work of art was Galpa-Salpa, the delightful book in prose and verse he had just published, ostensibly for children. One noticed a condescending tone in most reviews of his recent works, as if the reviewers wanted to imply that all this was good enough for old man in failing health. This patronizing attitude was an insult not only to the works themselves but to the Poet’s personality. He was as critical about his own works as he was lenient about others, and it was possible that nothing that he had written of late had completely satisfied him. That is the reason why he did not feel it beneath him, as he might well have done, to notice the remarks of critics, but, on the contrary, rather wished to hear what they said. At the same time, he did not want half-hearted, meaningless praise, nor did he care about being mentioned in a tone of awe; what he wanted to know was whether he had been able to do it. And in this lay his humility. Of course, he might not have bothered, he might just as well have thought that people were bound to accept whatever Rabindranath wrote. But to his last day he did not think of his reputation as an established fact, and that was why each of his new works was suffused with the enthusiasm of the new writer. Because he was born anew with each new book, he could claim new fields of fame each time. In the song he had composed for his last birthday celebrations he had once again evoked the new and said, ‘Let it appear again, the first auspicious moment of my birth’. This was not mere effusion, for these words contained the basic truth of his literary life.
It struck us that, immeasurably famous as he was, Rabindranath had acquired an immeasurable humility and wanted to know whether he had really been able to be of any use to his country. The man who had created Bengal had to ask whether Bengal had accepted him. He wanted to feel sure, before he took his leave, that all that he had done had not been in vain. He had accepted with a good grace the numerous felicitations that had poured on him on the occasion of his last birthday, for in all these, he had simply seen the fact that he had been accepted by the whole of his country. ‘You have not booed me, that is what they do in our country’.
All the same, Rabindranath’s imprisoned life was not a lesser tragedy than Beethoven’s deafness. He loved to see. A few years back we had once heard him say, ‘Now I do nothing else, I only see’ How often had he spent the hot mid-days at Santiniketan, when every other inmate was resting within closed doors, sitting in an open verandah and gazing insatiably at the plains rolling out to the horizon. Every day he had watched the hour when the rosy dawn was born out of night’s dark womb; he had plunged deep in the darkness of the rainy season and drunk his fill of moonlight. And in the end he was prisoner in an artificially cooled dark room and had to ask, suddenly starting from sleep, ‘Is it day or night?’ The moonlight was no more than a shadow and clouds were invisible. In his world, day and night had been shorn of their multi-coloured garments and the cycle of seasons played no more. The chorus of joy that birds sang every morning in the ancient trees of the ashrama did not reach his ear, the rain pattered and the leaves murmured without breaking the silence of his world. Nature reached him in faint glimpses, in shadows and whispers, and in imagination. There had never been a man so fond of variety as he was: he had never been able to reside for many months at a stretch in the same place, nor live in the same house for long. He had spent his days in every manner of place and dwelling and had been a tireless traveler, too. And in the last days it was not easy even to move from one room to another, and traveling, of course, was out of the question. Chained as he was, perhaps his mind dwelt on the hills and plains, cities and rivers of all lands, and it was certain that he was haunted by memories of the Padma and by a desire to return to his beloved river. ‘You belong to the shores of the Padma,’ he told us, ‘and have just seen Kopai that flows here! Here it is nearly as dry and hard as Rajputana. How far from Padma have I strayed.’ Perhaps the thought would suddenly flit across his mind that he would feel better if he went down to the sea. But the Padma was far away and the sea farther still. Well then, he created variety for himself in that single room. The arrangement of the furniture of the room was altered every day, his easy-chair faced different directions, and we did not find the room arranged in the same manner on two consecutive days. Even this proved that Rabindranath was as great an artist in life as in literature. Not only the entirety of his life, but his mode of daily living was a perfect work of art. One had to come to Santiniketan to understand what a great concept of life he had actually realised, for here his life was indeed like a king’s and when I say ‘king’ I mean it in its largest sense.
‘Give me, oh, give me My kingdom, my power, my glory, Not the daily bread alone’ -Cried D. H. Lawrence. It is possible that the tormented Lawrence would at last have been content if he had come to Santiniketan, for here, in the person of Rabindranath, he would have seen the true image of the lord of life.
Since his illness, Rabindranath slept very little and slightly. Fantastic dreams frequented him, and he talked in his sleep. He woke up by two o’clock in the morning and could not sleep again. Then he started talking or dictated some literary work. One day I sent him in writing some question regarding the inter-relation of history and literature. I did not hope for more than that he would say a few words on the subject, but when we went to him the next morning the first thing he said was: ‘What a lot of silly questions! Here you are’. Saying this, he handed over to me an essay in Mrs. Rani Chanda’s handwriting. He had started work after waking from sleep and had got an essay ready before we had woken from ours. A couple of days later he found it inadequate and added another and a shorter essay. You might have asked him to do seemingly absurd things in the way of literary composition; it was not in him to say ‘No’ to any suggestion, and you would at least have come away with a gracious smile and an assurance that he would think it over. There wasn’t any question to which he could not immediately reply and there wasn’t any topic which he did not eagerly discuss. Here was a man who was always ready, always interested, and never bored. He had combined endless toil with endless leisure. In one sense, every day of his life was a holiday, and in another, there had never been a single ‘off’ hour in his mental workshop.
On the day we departed we saw the Poet in sick-bed. Little did I imagine that I would have to see. It was itself a shock to step into his room after the brilliant afternoon light spread all over sky and land. For the room was dark as night, lit only by a table-lamp burning in a corner. The Poet was reclining in what seemed to me an enormous easy-chair, propped up by several pillows. He was quite still and his eyes were closed. A young doctor and one of his secretaries were attending. As we entered he half opened his eyes and faintly uttered a few words. His right hand began to rise in blessing over our heads but dropped half way. I have not the words to say how I felt at the moment. It was as if the heart had received a sudden blow, I felt choked and overcome by a sort of stupor so that I could not even have a full gaze at him. We could breathe freely only when we came out into the open. The immortal poet was a constant companion of this golden blaze of light while the frail earthen vessel lay imprisoned in a closed room.
This article has been first published in The Calcutta municipal Gazette: Tagore Memorial Special Supplement, 1941. Published in Parabaas June 15, 2004.