This chapter in Rabindranath’s life has an epic quality. Imagine a triumphant king, who having ever lived in splendour and glory, is turned pauper by fortune’s malevolence. The kingdom remains, so does the king, but all roads connecting the king to his kingdom are besieged. So in spite of everything, nothing remains. Rabindranath’s muse continues to be active, his creativity untired, but the simple bodily tools without which art cannot acquire form are becoming dysfunctional. This is the poet who had once declared, “Not for me the practice of Yoga that bars the door to the senses”; today, his organs of sense are giving up one by one. His vision is poor, he reads with great difficulty with the book close up to his eyes, but he continues to read. His hearing is affected, his hands weak, he cannot hold a brush or a pen steady. He says, “When god gave to me he gave generously, now he is taking everything away, bit by bit. I had imagined I would spend my last days painting, but that is not to be.” Images crowd his mind, he cannot give them shape in lines and colours, they remain phantasmal. His mind is afire, his hands betray him. Music stirs his soul every moment, but his voice will not come alive —like the images, the music too is lost. His songs are his favourite creations, but there will be no more of them. The day it rained, we went to the poet in the evening. Strewn around Rathibabu’s large sitting room were gramophone records of`Rabindranath’s songs; the poet had been listening to them. He was sitting in the small inside room, he looked tired. Seeing us, he said, “I have been trying to ‘evoke’ a monsoon song— but I cannot do it anymore.” This is indeed the first time that the rains came to Santiniketan without being hailed by the poet.
His writing has been his constant companion; he who has written a million words in prose, in poetry, on varied topics, in varied forms since he was sixteen, can no longer hold a pen, can barely put his signature to paper. Yet he goes on creating; even ‘jonmodiney’ had been written out in his own hand. Now he can no longer write but so he dictates; he continues to rewrite and revise because he cannot find satisfaction, to the end he cannot rid himself of the suspicion that he has not said it the way he wanted. Today he is unassumingly apologetic about his work. No matter how contrary his bodily conditions, he will not allow it to mar the quality of his work. ‘A tale or two (galposhalpo)’ that he has just written for children, in prose and poetry, is a wonderful creation. Writing about Rabindranath’s work today, critics often say, “Considering he is old, his health is failing, it’s a good piece of work, what more can you expect now.” This patronising tone does justice to neither his work nor to him! Today he is almost never completely satisfied with anything he writes; so let apart ignore the critics, he pays close attention to them. It is not mindless adulation, nor half-hearted faint praise that he seeks, but criticism that gives him a real measure of the work. Such is his humility. He could have thought, “My readers will happily read what I write, why worry about the critics ?” Even today, he does not take the acceptance of his work as a foregone conclusion; because he approaches every new composition with the enthusiasm of a new writer; each time he is born anew, and each time he demands fresh acceptance. “I hail the new, may I glimpse once again that first precious moment of birth.”—for him, these are not mere words, but the very foundation of his literary existence.
The amazing thing is even today he does not think “I am done with it all.” And so, even after having written so profusely, he is not ancient, he is nowhere near being finished. He is eager to know people’s reactions to his writings, but not merely as Rabindranath’s works. He urges his readers—forget the writer, his age, his occupation, his social standing, everything and concentrate on the writing. If you like what you read, nothing else matters. He is happy when somebody appreciates his writing, provided they are not just flattering him. It is impossible to deceive him, he is quick to detect insincerity. Critics often attempt to camouflage hollowness with a multitude of arguments; Rabindranath is not duped. To him the only worthwhile criticism is the able articulation of pleasure derived from his work, all else is irrelevant. But that is no trivial task, no casual matter. It requires training, experience and artistic sense. This cannot be born of mere knowledge, but of empathy, a strong sense of the art. This is what makes a critique valuable, worth voicing, worth listening to. A critique of this nature he welcomes with open arms, any other kind he shuns. He does not want a hair-splitting analysis of his work, nor a description of its historical background, he is pained by mere flattery, what he seeks is impassioned enjoyment. If he were vain, things would have been different. He knows how difficult it is to touch the heart but that is the ultimate objective of an artist, that is the acid test for any art. He told us how his paintings had been received abroad. He went to Birmingham; there they said, “This is not our thing. Go to Paris, there they are likely to appreciate this.” In Paris, everyone said, “You have achieved exactly what we have been striving for so long”. The most famous art critic in Paris came to see his paintings with Valerie. He hugged Rabindranath, kissed him,and said, “We knew you were great, but not the extent of your greatness!” Then Rabindranath went to Moscow, there people exclaimed, ”Where did you get these images? This is quintessential Soviet art.” Everywhere abroad, his pictures have been acclaimed, most so in Germany. In Berlin, the nation bought many of his paintings for the national gallery, an honour not accorded to any other living painter. When he reached Europe, his first showing was in Paris; he went to Paris before Birmingham and not after; and the art-critics in Birmingham told him to go to Berlin, not Paris. He confused these details in his narration to us. He did not even mention Berlin, but we know that entire Germany had risen up to welcome him in a manner quite unprecedented. He has lived to see what Germany has come to today!
He is venerated worldwide, but his fame has not made him vain. He knows that a poet’s home is in his own country, even if is a nation that is largely uninitiated.
“The secret of her world-captivating bewitchment
Here he surreptitiously talks about himself. Speaking of his own land, his own people, he erupts like a volcano come to life; a deep ache smoulders within his heart at the thought of his envy-ridden self-immersed squabbling countrymen. But then he brightens up at the thought of the contribution of Bengalis to its literature. When the English came to this country bringing in a new cultural wave, a flood of literary activities was produced in Bengal. In all of India, it happened in Bengal because as Rabindranath says we were ready for it. If the French had come rather than the English, we would each have become a Maupassant. Or to put it in the words of Pramatha Chaudhuri, the British made it happen, but did not cause it. This renaissance was inevitable, the English were the means. Western influence inspired different activities in the many states of India, here mathematics, there law or business, but literature flourished only in Bengal. I comprehend the truth of this when I observe a complete indifference to one’s tongue among the people of other states, especially among the upper echelons of society. The educated and wealthy actually shun their language, all communication and instruction is conducted in English. In the non-Bengali world, some people are beginning to show an inclination towards literature, but many of them write in English; in fact there are many who profess that English should become the national language of India. There is no end to the besetting sins of the Bengalis: we are mean, envious, rude; but if there is any one thing to commend in us, it is our attachment to our mother tongue. And we have imbibed it at long last due to the untiring efforts of Rabindranath. Today we can say no Indian loves their language better than Bengalis, and this is probably our greatest pride. To attempt to be a writer in another’s language can only be a death-sentence, and this we gathered well enough from the times of Madhusudan. And today, after Rabindranath and mainly due to his influence, we have embraced Bengali as the language of our lives, our love; even the common man shows an awareness of the language. At least in this aspect, Bengalis are alive and proud. What price the nationalism, patriotism of those who do not feel any love for their language? I think some amount of awareness is beginning to grow among the young Hindi and Urdu speakers, and we are beginning to discern signs of liveliness in their language and literature; this is a matter of joy. If this wave of rejuvenation spreads all over India, if love for one’s mother tongue springs in every Indian heart, it will be for us the beginning of a profound liberation. We already see an increased interest in the nurture of the mother tongue in Gujarat and Maharasthra. English still appears to hold immense sway over South India. Even in North India, many writers continue to be shackled by English, and it is only Bengal that has broken away. Madhusudan thought that Bengali needed to be freed from the clutches of Sanskrit, this was true in his time; today our aim is the liberation of Bengali from the stranglehold of English.
One might ask, “Can not there be an Indian Joseph Conrad?” That is not impossible, and one might remember Sri Aurobindo in this context. But when one is capable of creating genuine literature in another tongue, it does not remain for him an alien language but becomes his own; by dint of circumstances becomes as much as his mother tongue. Sri Aurobindo knows hardly any Bengali, and apart from his mastery in Yoga, he is entirely British, his writings bear testimony to this fact. So if circumstances are such as to make expression in another tongue natural, it is entirely in keeping with the premise that our thoughts are best expressed in our own language; the language that we learn through much effort and rigour may be useful to write newspaper articles, to speak at a congressional assembly, or even for social interactions, but cannot be made to speak of our innermost longings. If I have something to say, not dispense information or theory, but only to speak of my heart, I cannot do it in any language other than my own. Even genius cannot usurp another’s language. Complete ease and mastery over another language can only come about through certain unusual circumstances, for example, if someone is born and brought up in an alien land, or if someone spends his adult life in foreign shores devoid of the company of his countrymen. These are rare occurrences. If Kipling had been brought up as an Indian in India in the manner of Sri Aurobindo growing up as an Englishman among the English, he might have made our ill-fated nation proud by becoming its foremost Urdu writer.
That we have been able to make our language our very own is a laudable achievement on the part of the Bengalis, because in this matter there was no incentive apart from that within our hearts, and there isn’t even now. We are burdened with a demon that would be unbelievable elsewhere in the world, we are educated in a foreign tongue. We are beginning to see its apalling effects already. English occupies a major part of our daily transactions; it is indispensable in getting a job, in carrying out trade, or in the conduct of politics. Not in all, but in certain areas, we cannot deny its usefulness even today. But as a result, a strange discrepancy persists in our lives, and confounds us at every step. We learn English out of fear, not love, and so the bonds this language has forged with our heart is meagre. We learn English for the sake of our daily bread, not for the sake of knowledge or literature, and so this learning does nothing to enrich us, rather it spoils us. As to what we learn of English, less said the better; yet this language stands perennially between us and the natural instinct for our mother tongue. We writers know well the pitfalls of that. Preparing to write in Bengali, we find ourselves thinking in English, and yet we are incapable of saying it well in English. We have to learn to write in Bengali with great difficulty and great effort. That said, the simple fact of learning to speak a language without any conscious effort does not give me mastery over a language, to be at one with it we still need commitment, as anywhere in the world. To make literature from language is always a difficult proposition, made even more difficult in our country due to the barrier created by a foreign language. In other countries, school education is possibly of some help in this; in our country it is a deterrent. To learn to write in Bengali, one needs to unlearn much of what is taught in school. Since childhood, most things are taught in English, so that far from being able to write good Bengali, we are not even able to write it correctly. Books are not only written incompetently, but are also full of mistakes. People agree that to write in Bengali we often need to stop to think, it does not come easily, while English comes fluent and fast. This is because in English there are often set phrases, while in Bengali we must forge our own idiom. After reading English for fourteen years, the English that a Bengali writes is unspeakable, it is neither English nor Bengali, but rather Benglish. It is true that Bengali today is a language that can hold its own, but our troubles are hardly over. In schools and colleges, learning English is of primary importance, and yet we do not truly learn English; on the other hand, English makes us forget our mother tongue—whoever dreamt of such chicanery in the name of education? Let us ignore the infinite ignorance that persists after the acquisition of several degrees—no knowledge, no wisdom touches our minds, mingles in our blood, all of it sticks in our throat and discomfits us, till we can vomit it out in the exams and feel relief: of the many reasons behind this situation one is undoubtedly the mediation of a foreign tongue. The situation is getting to be intolerable even for our forbearing nature; very recently, the university has decided that the medium of primary education will be Bengali, and in general there is an increased interest in our mother tongue. One hopes that our children will be freed of the mental affliction that we have suffered.
A poet expresses himself in his own tongue, he finds acceptance in his own country, among those who speak his language. Rabindranath has found unbounded fame and yet with boundless humility, today he wonders if he has been able to give something to his motherland. He who created Bengal doubts if Bengal has accepted him. He wants to hear that he has not failed. On his birthday, greetings were showered on him, and he learnt that his country has accepted him. “You have not jeered at me, in my country they do.”
Illustration: Talban (Palm grove), by Sutan Harahap; taken from Sudhiranjan Das's Amader Shantiniketan.
Published September 9, 2010
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