A Review: Maitreyi Devi's Tagore by Fireside

Anandamayee Majumdar

Tagore by Fireside; Maitraye Devi,
Translated and adapted by the author from her Bangla work Mungpu-te Rabindranath ;
Rupa & Co.; New Delhi; 2002;
Pp. 259; ISBN: 81-7167-725-8

[First, let me get this uncomfortable feeling out of the way: I do not know why the author's name has been transliterated as Maitraye Devi, it does not seem right, and I will stick to the more common spelling, `Maitreyi' instead of Maitraye throughout this write-up.]

Tagore by Fireside (1960) is an intimate story of Rabindranath Tagore in the last years of his life (1938-1941). It is a record of his time spent at the home of Maitreyi Devi and her husband, in a remote hill-station Mungpu, a sparsely-populated village at the foothills of the Himalayas. The Poet was invited and received several times to their home in Mungpu. These are the word-by-word accounts, centered on Rabindranath and his fellow beings during these visits. Here we find the day-to-day conversations of the Poet, recorded religiously by the author. Tagore's personality comes vividly alive in this book, and those who knew him closely, testify to this—his son Rathindranath and daughter-in-law Pratima Devi, among others. Maitreyi Devi herself is a familiar name in the field of Bengali literature, and has many feathers in her cap. Apart from Tagore-related books, she is well known for her novel Na Hanyate in Bengali (later translated by the author herself as It Does Not Die, 1994) which went on to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1976. Perhaps less well known is her dynamic leadership in the rehabilitation and support of the cause regarding the war-torn refugees of East Pakistan (soon to become a sovereign Bangladesh) in their heroic liberation war in 1971.

I came across the original Bengali version Mungpute Rabindranath (1943) quite some time ago. It is a different experience reading the English version, Tagore by Fireside, after all these years, when the etched features of the Bengali version have somehow been lost with the passage of time. As is well-acknowledged, translations, however well done, do not seem to render justice to the original work, and yet, this book commands our attention and rapture. I found myself reliving those exalted moments at Mungpu, relishing the rich accounts yet again, appreciating each page even more. The essence has not been lost in her English work— in this beautiful prose rendered by the author herself of Mungpute Rabindranath.

The simple description of the following event is very moving and stands out as one of the most poignant ones in this book. The Poet was twice present on his birthday at Mungpu. The first time, his hosts were anxious about how to observe this day. In Santiniketan, it would customarily be celebrated among a multitude of people, including a highbrow milieu, in gallant festivity. Mungpu, but a remote village in the lonely Himalayas, was a different issue. Apparently, the poet solved this problem on his own accord. He requested his hosts to invite the workers of the Cinchona plantations and those at the nearby Quinine factory, who formed the native people of Mungpu. There was a vast divide between workers and middle class at the time in India (presumably this continues to be the case). Colonialism had planted rigid protocols about what a middle-class Babu and a low-wage worker had to do when they came together. Rabindranath was definitely not going to abide by them. Since they formed the workforce and the lifeblood of Mungpu, he expressed his desire to meet them on his birthday. And so the celebrations were completed in their midst as they recited, sang and danced in tribal fete and offered him their obeisance.

There appear occasional bereavements in these lively accounts. On his eightieth birthday the news of death of his nephew Surendranath arrived. The Poet loved him dearly, recognized in him enormous promise and greatness. In such times, the author noticed his discipline of emotions (the same phrase is used by the author in her English book, possibly standing for what Tagore would have called sadhana, penance for self-control). No matter what, he took the greatest effort to hold his head high to find resilience and composure. As Tagore-lovers know well, he transformed the moments of grief by pouring out his heart into crafting literary gems. As a result, he wrote a poem at the death of Surendranath which was published in Janmadiney (poem #8), a book of poems written on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. Here is a translation by Wendy Barker and Saranindranath Tagore from the book Rabindranath Tagore : Final Poems (George Braziller, New York, 2001):

On My Birthday 8

Ripping the breast of my birthday
today, news of the death, leave-taking of a friend, has arrived.
My own fire-grief burns—
On evening's forehead, the sun places
a blood-gleaming sign,
changes the coming night's face to gold
just as death dresses me with a burning flame
at the western edge of life.

In this light can be seen
seamless life where birth, death are one.
Such splendor illuminates a deathlessness
hidden in the everyday by our senses' limits.

(6 May 1940)

The book Tagore by Fireside follows well in a long line of other books dedicated to the life and works of Tagore, and what follows are brief accounts of some of those. Rabindranath o Santiniketan (by Pramathanath Bisi) and Gurudev o Santiniketan (by Syed Mujtaba Ali) are memoirs by literary figures who were once students at his school at Santiniketan. Amader Santiniketan (by Sudhiranjan Das) adds to this list a detailed account of life as a student at Santiniketan. Along with much information and insight, these are also impassioned accounts, even with superb mischievous glitter, authored by bright, ex-prankster students of Visva-bharati (Tagore's University at Santiniketan) who later became important citizens in their own rights.

Another first-hand treatise of Rabindranath in Santiniketan lies in the book Sab Peyechhir Deshe (The Land Where I Found it All is the title given by the translator Nandini Gupta). It is an enchanting memoir of the famous Bengali writer Buddhadeva Bose, written on his visit to Santiniketan. Also, Bolai Chand Mukhopadhyay, pen-named Bonophul ('Wild flower'), wrote his memoir with Rabindranath in Rabindra-smriti. The canvas is smaller in these latter books, but the details of literary exchange of Tagore with the young writers are captivating. Bose had been active in the Kallol movement, rebellious against Tagore's glaring presence in the literary arena. Bonophul, on the other hand, had expressed fierce criticisms on Tagore's weaknesses, as he saw them. Hence, noteworthy are their points of open contention.

Maitreyi Devi herself has other books on the same topic, in Bengali. Rabindranath: Grihe o Vishwe (Rabindranath: at Home and in the World), Kavi Sarvabhauma (The All-encompassing Poet) and Swarger Kachhakachhi (Close to Paradise) are all wonderful accounts of the man, first-hand and from a close-range.

In Swarger Kachhakachhi we find a multitude of exchanged letters between Rabindranath and Maitreyi Devi's father Surendranath Dasgupta, a scholar of many fields including Sanskrit literature and philosophy, and a well-known literary critic of his time. We also find many exchanges with Maitreyi Devi herself. The touch of humor sparkles here as well, as does the magic of Tagore's prolific personality.

Rani Chanda has interesting anecdotes and information in her own memoir Sab Hotey Aapon. She was a student at Santiniketan, an artist in her own right, and a close associate of Rabindranath, Abanindranath, Nandalal Bose and the other towering educators in Santiniketan. Santiniketan had become her familial nest early on when she married Tagore's long-term personal secretary Anil Chanda. After Tagore's passing away, she also became one of the helmsmen at Visva-bharati. In all its simplicity and soulfulness her book is a living proof of the pioneering role that Visva-bharati has played in the arts and education in undivided India.

Among many citizens of the world whose lives he touched deeply, and who in turn dedicated their lives to his educational and social projects were the Englishmen Carl Pearson and Charles Andrews as well as the Irishman Leonard Elmherst. Elmherst's memoir Poet and Plowman is a day-to-day, first-hand account of holistic rural development projects that Elmherst pioneered at Surul, later known as Sriniketan (which became sister organization to Visva-bharati in Santiniketan). This extraordinarily lively prose takes us back in time to learn step-by-step how Tagore masterminded this enterprise, and how this outstanding work was undertaken. No less than a real-life thriller, this record of dedicated work is still relevant to us, especially when environmental sustainability becomes a deep concern of our times.

A fierce nationalistic fervor against British colonial rule was at play in undivided India. The Indian national freedom movement had found many frontiers by the time Tagore was a young man. He had once been at the forefront in these mainstream battles. He transformed the religious tradition of Rakhsha Bandhan to a secular motif of unity among diversity and resisted Banga Bhanga, the partition of Bengal along communal lines. He also familiarized the traditional Indian dress (violating the European coat- and- tie ritual), revolutionized Indian literature and music, writing more patriotic songs than any other poet of his era. Most of his songs are still widely popular after a hundred years in a way that the Occident knows no match. He is the composer of the national anthems of both India (Jana Gana Mana) and Bangladesh (Amar Sonar Bangla).

Related stories about his Rabi Kaka (Uncle Rabi) and much more are depicted in Abanindranath's Gharoa, a word- by- word account jotted down religiously by Rani Chanda— a classic memoir; hilarious, upbeat and hugely informative. A 'follow up' results in Rabindra-smriti, by Tagore's close confidant and niece, Indira Devi Choudhurani, who happens to be the recipient of most of the letters in his Chinnapatravali. Her memoir has proficient notes on Tagore's songs and his musical attributes. Both books familiarize us with the wonderful ambiance of the Tagore family in the context of their times.

Amartya Sen's essay “Tagore and His India” focuses on many of the misconceptions and ignorance about Rabindranath both at home and abroad. Sen's multifaceted article also deals with Tagore's free and rational mind, his international concerns, his work with education and the people, his ardent voice on nationalism and colonialism and on cultural separation, among others. Indeed, the vast ideas and ideals of the Poet are consolidated in this articulate and erudite writing, now a chapter in Sen's famous book The Argumentative Indian. “Tagore and His India” is an analytical essay that stands out in genre from all the rest of the memoirs mentioned above. Many more in the philosophical and literary genre are available; especially worth mentioning in this spare scope are Adhunikata o Rabindranath (translated as Modernism and Tagore), Pather Shesh Kothay (Where Does the Road End) and Pantho Joner Sakha (Friend of the Wayfarer), the famous and versatile trio by Abu Sayeed Ayub.

Returning to Tagore by Fireside, we find an exclusive memoir of Rabindranath in many aspects. It expresses the organic fiber of the Poet's personality like none other. His words, movements and activities spiritedly come alive here. Moreover, as a salient feature, Tagore by Fireside does a wonderful job of expressing the fun and the mischievous sparkle he commanded. Here we find a cozy, domestic atmosphere centered around the Poet's sunny presence which blends with his literary discussions, musical evenings, philosophical treatise, reading sessions—always richly sprinkled with spectacular frolic and even rather rare-to-come-by personal reminiscences of his early life. The quiet surroundings of Mungpu might have helped to accentuate a certain bliss, which the reader is apt to imbibe, from those long-ago moments. As I browse and ponder this point, I think—the book certainly has a sustaining quality to it.

Published in Parabaas May 7, 2009.

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