A memoir with a conspicuously literary slant is Buddhadeva Bose's The Land Where I Found it All. Translated from Bengali to English by Nandini Gupta, the translator provides context in her introduction for readers who are not already familiar with the author:
Buddhadeva Bose belonged to that generation of Bengali writers of the thirties and forties who fought tooth and nail to escape the all-pervading influence of Rabindranath [Tagore] to establish their personal idioms. He succeeded, but the fascination, admiration, and awe of the older poet remained.
Bose was first invited by Tagore to visit Santiniketan in 1938, and this book was written after his second visit in 1941. On the first visit, Bose, his wife and daughter, and two friends stayed at Punascha, one of the original 5 houses built by Rabindranath, with the poet himself in the nearby Shyamali.
Every morning, he would sit on a cane chair in the shade of a small mango tree behind Shyamali; the mail would pile up on the table in front of him, a couple of torn envelopes would flutter to the ground and mingle with dry leaves.
By 1941 Bose and his wife had two daughters, and travelled with a maid to help take care of the baby, as well as a "litterateur and dialectic-happy" friend.
Used to city living, Bose was surprised by the profusion of bird noise, the trees and moonlight in rural Santiniketan, and found himself wonderfully refreshed. Over the four days of his first visit, he is completely captivated by the place, by its hosts and visitors, by the gracious but unintrusive hospitality, by the “blending of East and West that is a speciality of the Tagores”, and by the combination of warm affection and respect for individuality. On his second visit, the days are leisurely, "a lingering adagio", with no household chores, deep night sleeps and early mornings, time spent daily with Rabindranath, and the rest of the day in conversation with the many other literati at Santiniketan.
These were not solemn conclaves: "laughter is a staple diet at Santiniketan". The Sanskrit professor Kshitimohan Sen was a raconteur, another visitor was a punster, and Rabindranath's granddaughter Nandita Debi had a “bright and lively sense of humour.” Of course, there was also music, especially Rabindrasangeet. And ghost stories in the late evenings.
Many readers will want to read about Bose's impressions of Rabindranath, and the author provides pages of awed description.
I have always felt that Rabindranath's eyes are like a Mughal emperor's: not poetic but regal. One is afraid to look him in the eye. [. . .]
We all know that Rabindranath is extraordinarily handsome; but his beauty is a little more than beauty, or may be it is not the beauty of the temporal world, but that spoken of in aesthetics.[. . .] It is his genius that is reflected on his face; mere fairness of skin and sharpness of features do not make for such beauty.[. . .] a complete man.
. . . he is losing those senses one by one. [. . .] Yet he goes on creating.
This chapter has a particularly interesting discussion about the Bengali language in those pre-Independence days, when, Bose says, city Indians aimed to be as English as possible in their habits and language.
Thanks to the untiring efforts of Rabindranath [. . .] today we can say no Indian loves his language better than a Bengali, and this is probably our greatest pride.
Nonfiction often tells more about the author than the people he describes, and Bose comes across as thoughtful and open-minded, willing to admire other ways of living and to examine his own, and even the beguiling Santiniketan, with a critical eye.
Strangely enough, except for [. . .3 buildings..] none of the houses in Santiniketan are built to combat the heat. [. . .] All the houses that have recently been home to the poet are unparalleled as works of art, but not in the least tempting as summer residences.
The chapters that most display the author’s personality are the eponymous The Land Where I Found it All and its following Escape?, both of which are fascinating reading. He contrasts the relentless “literary wrangles” and “social obligations” of his life in the city with the simplicity, privacy and peace of Santiniketan. It is also distinctly Indian:
Here, we looked Indianness in the face, and we liked what we saw. […] Family and social life have a refined cadence that is ours, that is truly Indian.
In contrast to his dreary Calcutta routine, at Santiniketan he can relax and recharge, and work is not onerous. Even the servants there work hard, but are not ordered around. A modern reader may wonder, as I did, how all this was funded.
There are women at Santiniketan, some of whom have musical or artistic talents, but Bose especially admires the fact that “all women do some light housework”, instead of the indolent middle-class life they apparently lead in Calcutta. A product of his times, he sees the ability of women to run their own homes as a great gift: they should not “cede control over it to hired help.” (But what of the women who want to paint or write novels?).
He commends a Parsi lady who lives alone and goes around with “fearless confidence”: “a role model that not only Bengali women, but many men could aspire to.”
Sad and a little surprising, writers appear to be rather condescended to in 1950s Calcutta. Bose describes a social evening where people say things like:
Oh, [you are] a writer? Not that I can keep track of books and things, as busy as I am with my own work, but yes, yes, I have seen some of your stuff.
In Santiniketan, though, his authorship is important to everyone.
The book is written for those who are steeped in Bengali literature, but the translator has helpfully provided footnotes for less well-versed readers such as myself:
Samar Sen (1916-1987): Noted Bengali poet and journalist.
Prashantachandra Mahalanobis (1893 - 1972): FRS, famous statistician; was Rabindranath's secretary for some time.
Bose wrote the book as a gift, but sadly, Tagore had passed away by the time it was published.
This is a book that leaves the reader wanting to know more about Santiniketan, and how it has changed in the 80 years since Bose's visit and the passing of Rabindranath.