Categories
Index

Borderless, September 2021

Editorial

The Caged Birds Sing…Click here to read.

Interviews

Professor Anvita Abbi, a Padma Shri, discusses her experience among the indigenous Andamanese and her new book on them, Voices from the Lost Horizon. Click here to read.

Keith Lyons talks to Jessica Mudditt about her memoir, Our Home in Myanmar, and the current events. Click here to read.

Translations

Be and It All Came into Being

Balochi poetry by Akbar Barakzai, translated by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Adivasi Poetry

A poem by Jitendra Vasava translated from the Dehwali Bhili via Gujarati by Gopika Jadeja. Click here to read.

A Poem for The Ol Chiki

 Poetry by Sokhen Tudu, translated from the Santhali by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Click here to read.

About Time

Korean poetry on time written and translated by Ilwha Choi. Click here to read.

Of Days and Seasons

A parable by the eminent Dutch writer, Louis Couperus (1863-1923), translated by Chaitali Sengupta. Click here to read.

Road to Nowhere

An unusual story about a man who heads for suicide, translated from Odiya by the author, Satya Misra. Click here to read.

Abhisar by Tagore

A story poem about a Buddhist monk by Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read the poems

Arundhathi Subramaniam, Michael R Burch, Sekhar Banerjee, Jeff Shakes, Ashok Suri, Tim Heerdink, Srinivas S, Rhys Hughes, A Jessie Michael, George Freek, Saranayan BV, Gigi Baldovino Gosnell, Pramod Rastogi, Tohm Bakelas, Nikita Desai, Jay Nicholls, Smitha Vishwanathan, Jared Carter

Nature’s Musings

In Sun, Seas and Flowers, Penny Wilkes takes us for a tour of brilliant photographs of autumnal landscapes with verses. Click here to read.

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Memory Gongs, Rhys Hughes creates a profound myth tinged with a tongue in cheek outlook … Click here to read.

Essays

Crime and the Colonial Capital: Detective Reid in Calcutta

Abhishek Sarkar explores the colonial setting up of the Calcutta detective department in 1887. Click here to read.

The Myth of Happiness

Candice Louisa Daquin ponders over the impositions on people to declare themselves happy. Click here to read.

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Babies and Buddhas

John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the second part of his travelogue. Click here to read.

Bhaskar’s Corner

Bhaskar Parichha explores links between Politics & the Media. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

Cyclists

Mike Smith muses about a black and white photograph from his childhood. Click here to read.

Leo Messi’s Magic Realism

Sports fan Saurabh Nagpal explores the magic realism in famous footballer Messi’s play with a soupçon of humour. Click here to read.

Infinite Possibilities & Mysterious Riddles

Keith Lyons gives a lively account of traveling across borders despite the pandemic. Click here to read.

Word Play

Geetha Ravichnadran explores additions to our vocabulary in a tongue-in-cheek article. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In When I Almost Became a Professor, Devraj Singh Kalsi gives humour tinged reasons on why he detached himself from being an academician. Click here to read.

Stories

Flash Fiction: Turret

Niles M Reddick relates a haunting tale of ghosts and more. Click here to read.

Silver Lining

Dipayn Chakrabarti travels through moods of the day and night. Click here to read.

Captain Andi is in love

Dr. P Ravi Shankar explores a future beyond climate change in Malaysia. Click here to read.

The Cockatoo

Revathi Ganeshsundaram captures the stardust in ripening years. Click here to read.

The Missing Tile

Saeed Ibrahim’s story reflects on the ties between an old teacher and a student. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In Return of the Ghost, Sunil Sharma explores the borders between life, ideas and death. Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

An excerpt from Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal, showcasing Tagore’s introduction and letters. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Rakhi Dalal reviews Anvita Abbi’s Voices from the Lost Horizon. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy reviews Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Wendy Doniger’s Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

The Caged Birds Sing

...Don't you know
They're talkin''bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper...
-- Tracy Chapman,'Talkin 'Bout a Revolution
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
— Bible 

We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?

Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?

That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.

“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”

Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’.  Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?

 Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.

In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices?  We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.

We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.

Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!

While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?

Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares, and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.

We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.

Have a beautiful month!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Excerpt Tagore Translations

Letters From Tagore

Rabindranath’s introduction to his correspondence with Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and a few letters dealing with death, his sense of loss on the death of a favourite and about his encounter with a German anthropologist, translated by Somdatta Mandal and included as a part of Kobi &Rani

Title: ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammilani, Bolpur, W.B., 2021

On the Road and Beyond It

Introduction by Tagore

The earth expresses itself by moving in two ways. One is by rotating by itself, and the other through a larger movement by going around the sun. In the earth’s yearly cycle, we see the change of seasons, and different kinds of fruits and crops fill up the granary of man. Its diurnal course results in the play of light and shade on land and water, the change of nature’s moods in the sky, the play of colours every morning and evening on the horizon; different tones of voices between waking up and going to sleep.

These two different movements can be compared with two kinds of literature – first the ordinary one meant for the general public and the other, more intimate, one, that of letters. Usually ordinary literature draws a huge reading public, and moves far away from the limits of personal life to distant countries. By contrast, the literature of letters reveals the close periphery of a world known to the writer that includes shades of daily experience, its sights and sounds, and along with it, its instantaneous moods and feelings. At least, this is more or less true of the letters published in this series called ‘Patradhara.’

 Most of the letters published under the title Chinnapatra in this ‘Patradhara’ series have been selected from the letters I wrote to my niece Indira. At that time, I was wandering around the villages of Bengal; every second different village scenes were startling my wayfaring mind with their new appearances, and these were getting reflected in the letters. Those who have the habit of always speaking quickly open their mouths whenever they find anything funny and interesting. Once we try to package and express within the form of literature, the emotions that arise within and change their nature. We are constantly confronting different things from all parts of the world but it is not worth broadcasting them through loudspeakers. The easiest way to retain them is by confronting known people behind the crowd.

The second set of letters in ‘Patradhara’ was written to a young girl. Most of them were written from Santiniketan so the moving pictures of life there constantly flow through them. In these letters we do not have any grave news; the childishness of that girl, who is innocent about domestic affairs, is reflected through a jovial atmosphere; and along with this is the writer’s jocular benevolence. There is no way in which a mature writer can express permanently all that can be said in an ordinary light-hearted way.

 The third section of ‘Patradhara’ has been named Pathe O PatherPrante (On the Road and Beyond It). There is a story behind it. When I went to travel in Europe in 1926, I received invitations from various countries. During that period Rathindranath was sick and confined in a hospital in Berlin. So the responsibility for accompanying me fell on Prasanta Mahalanobis and his wife Rani who was also with him. Sometimes without speaking a single word and sometimes speaking too much, she took the entire responsibility upon her shoulders. She had to rectify all the problems that two inexperienced male travellers created while making proper arrangements for travel. Packing all our things, arranging them, keeping a count of the luggage and moving with them safely during our travels, coping with the sometimes careless and sometimes appropriate demands of the foreign authorities in those few months, Rani handled everything exceptionally well. I had been travelling in new railway coaches, ship’s cabins, living in hotel rooms, and at every step during these repeatedly changing situations, had been interacting with new people. By submitting all the unexpected problems to be resolved by her, I had shamelessly spent my days in peace while receiving a lot of care and nursing from her. At the end, when we completed our European tour and boarded a ship from a Greek port to go home, they kept on staying abroad. As I moved towards my homeland, I continued to keep our companionship alive through letters. Some of those letters, and also those written later, have now been collected here as the third series of ‘Patradhara.’ The constant debates going on all around regarding new experiences have also been expressed through these letters. But the value of narrating our European tour, which has not been published anywhere, is enormous.

 All the thoughts that go on within the mind and want to be expressed in our writings remain alive till death. But in our mental life the flow of ideas that are expressed in perpetual motion reach a saturation point at a certain period of time. When the mind is full, then apart from the essential words, a lot is left as excess. Those who love to socialize express those excess words in gatherings, those who are introverted express their feelings in their diaries, and people like me who like to write express their thoughts to someone for whom the road to writing is easily open through letters. In the end as one keeps on moving in time, the excess of emotions reaches its nadir and the mind reaches such a state that the urge to write dies. Today I have reached that point of time in my life when I am silent. I have crossed that stage when I wrote letters voluntarily, with some of them strewn about unnecessarily like multi-coloured shells and snails on a sea beach. I see them from a distance just like the inquisitive vision of external readers. The present mind which rarely speaks now is feeling envious of those times when emotions would rush out incessantly; of course some joyous moments also accompanied them. When grains ripen, it becomes time to gather them and put them inside the barn. Today I could like to gather the harvest from that season which was full of words.

                                                                                                  Rabindranath Tagore

                                                                                                  May/June 1938

Letter 4

I had thought that I would post your letter when the ship halted at Aden. Now I received the news that the ship will not halt anywhere between Suez and Colombo. So I am thinking of writing a little more.

The thought of death is not leaving my mind. In our world we are somehow connected to one another through our different selves, sometimes deeply and sometimes lightly. All of those are included in my life. I am not reluctant regarding anything in this world; this means I live quite intensively. But the more life is extended, the more happiness and sorrow also occur. The arrows of death find greater space to come and hurt you if your heart is extended. The true worship of life is immortality, which means living in a way that is beyond death. On many occasions the indifference that arises upon the death of someone you love means that the soul is hurt: it then wants to desert everything and live within something that does not erode or dissolve. I find this same message in the first chapter of my father’s life story. When death confronts life, it asks this question: “Is there anything left inside after what I have taken away? If nothing is left, then you are completely befooled.” Life wants life; it does not want to be cheated by death in any way. Once it clearly understands that it has been cheated, in an instant it eagerly states, “Something that cannot fetch me immortality is of no use to me.” Man says this so many times and forgets it so often.

                                                                                                            Yours,

                                                                                                            7 December 1926.

Letter 6

I cannot forget Santosh[1]. I think of my own life – I have been living for such a long time – how I have experienced sadness and happiness, hopes and desires, trials and pursuits, and how I have passed through so much difficult historical terrain. Compared to this, Santosh’s life was so limited. His life ended just after he had completed his youth. Even then, the picture of his life is clearly expressed. It is without any excitement but not meaningless. There are so many people all around us who are in service, who are running a household, but all of that is meaningless. Their days pass by in a heap – one upon the other. But taken together they don’t form a clear shape. Santosh’s life was not as formless as that. I remember how he came back some time ago after completing his education in America. He came and created his own space at Santiniketan. There are many other teachers working here. They work just as they would do elsewhere and some work maybe a little bit more than that. But with all the respect in his young heart, Santosh established himself with his entire life. Of course there was the necessity of earning his livelihood but his spiritual connection was stronger. The work we do every day for our personal necessities does not have any excess; it gets absorbed within itself and ends there. But Santosh associated his own life with a mission that was beyond his personal needs. I had very clearly seen the results of it because he led a simple, transparent and respectful life without excesses. But if I knew Santosh only from the work he did, then I would be mistaken. I knew him with my entire vision. It is not that the entire vision is sometimes deformed by love: it achieves a wholeness as well. My intelligence does not disregard the proofs, but my strength of vision also respects his direct sense of responsibility. Sometimes there is a conflict between these two and then the mystery becomes very difficult and sad. This dichotomy is present in the idea of death itself – our heart simply does not want to accept it as the extreme. But there is no end to the opposite proofs– the tug of war between the two makes this so extremely painful. My poem “Jete nahi dibo” (“I won’t let you go”) is one of such pain.

Today on behalf of all the middle class passengers of the ship, a white man had come to me with a request. They want to hear something from me this afternoon. I would not have suddenly agreed to this request if they had been first class passengers, but the egos of the second class passengers are much lighter. We can see human beings in them. Now it is almost time to go there.

Letter 7

Today is our fourth day on the ocean. We will reach Colombo on the morning of the 16th. But I will not have the peace of returning home. The long train journey is divided into many sections. Also, what Pupe[2] has now learnt to call “malpatro” (luggage), is great in number. They are large in volume and the containers are in a pitiable condition. There are some boxes which right from the beginning of the journey have permanently lost contact with their keys and there is no way out except to be tied up with strings. There are some boxes which have had their whole bodies damaged by being hit constantly; some other boxes look like patients who have eaten too much and are waiting to vomit and feel relieved. But Rathi is sympathetic towards them – he treats them like patients in a hospital on the battlefield. Whatever it may be, we are still travelling towards our country, and dark and deep greenery seems to be visible on the last leg our journey. Here the sky is full of beneficial sunshine just as it is in our own country. The moon is growing fuller day by day; I can visualize it swinging through the leaves of the sal trees murmuring in the wind. I imagine depositing the entire load of my stay abroad at the entrance of Uttarayan[3] and then quickly resuming the willing sojourns of my mind. But alas, I also know for sure that we do not reside in heaven and that wherever I go, after pushing my way forth after the desires of many other people, I have only a narrow path left for fulfilling my own desires. The only minor advantage is that, in spite of the path being narrow, I have trodden on it for a long time and have become used to it. In spite of the crowd, it is somewhat possible to walk there on your own.

Among our fellow passengers, there is a German anthropologist who is going to India along with his wife.[4] He has heard the name of our professor. He told me, “I have heard that he is a professor of physics. So I understand that he researches the mathematical side of anthropology; we are working on the human side.” What he means by the human side can be understood by his diligence. He is going to collect information about the wild and tribal communities in south and central India. Much of their lifestyle is still unknown and difficult to know; I have not even heard their names. They live discreetly in very difficult terrain. He wants to enter their territory in a latent or concealed manner in case they are afraid and suspect him. He does not want to live in a tent and instead has taken a sack to spend the nights in. There are snakes, wild animals, and the chance of falling sick due to an irregular routine and unhealthy food. In other words, he is taking a risk with his life. They have left their small child under the care of relatives. His wife has accompanied him on this trip in case he falls sick in the jungle. In the meantime, in order to expedite her husband’s work, she is preparing notes throughout the day with the help of maps and books. The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilized. Except for information about the human race there is no precious object to be recovered from them. These people have ventured to open the doors of information of the whole world, and we are rolling ourselves on torn mats by lying down on the mud floor of the earth. It is best to leave this space for them — God has sent many messengers to clear it up.

About the book:   Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) included in ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific letter writer and Rani Mahalanobis is the only person to whom he wrote more than five hundred letters, the maximum number written to any individual person. In 1938, in the third volume of the series entitled “Patradhara”[5], Rabindranath selected sixty letters written at different periods of time to her. This he titled Pathe O Pather Prante and it was published from Visva-Bharati Publications Department in Kolkata.

Incidentally, we find the first ten letters of this series as a supplement to the narrative where Rani’s memoir Kobir Shonge Europey ends in 1926. Since it was published much later, Rani has also included some of these letters in her memoir. The rest of the letters selected from those written up to 1938 describe various moods of the Poet for a period of twelve years. They include philosophical musings, his observations on the changing of seasons, news about the incidents and functions taking place in Santiniketan during Rani’s absence, and especially his views on his new-found interest in sketching and painting. In other words, unlike those written to Indira Devi and Ranu Adhikari, these letters are interesting because they cover multifarious topics and issues and reveal the Poet’s tone of intimacy with Rani. As per Prashantakumar Pal’s biography,

Rani Mahalanobis used to suffer from a sort of non-infectious tuberculosis, so for her fever was almost a regular affair. Naturally Rabindranath would get worried – he would suggest different medicines – and write innumerable long letters, which according to him would help Rani forget some of her physical ailments. (Rabijibani, vol.IX, p.297. Translation mine)

The sixty letters included in this volume also vary in length. Some are quite short, while others are lengthy. Again some of the letters are dated with the Bengali month and year, whereas others are dated according to the English calendar. A few of the letters do not have any dates at all. Also some of them seem quite sketchy, and do not have the usual beginning, middle or end. The reason for this becomes clear when we get to know that Tagore had drastically edited several sections of these letters, especially places which revealed his innermost self.

About the translator:

Somdatta Mandal is Former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships and awards, her areas of interest are American Literature, contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, Diaspora studies and translation. She has edited three volumes of travel writing —Indian Travel Narratives (2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), and Indian Travel Narratives: New Perspectives (2021) and has translated from Bengali to English different kinds of Indian travelogues, with special focus on men and women in colonial times. Among them are: The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose (2010), Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family (2014), which records vignettes of travel by nineteen members of the Tagore family spanning more than 150 years, A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das, which is the first woman’s travel narrative from Bengal published in 1885(2015), Crossing Many Seas(2018) by Chitrita Devi, Gleanings of the Road (2018) by Rabindranath Tagore, and The Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan and Other Essays (2019) by Hariprabha Takeda. Two other translated volumes on Rabindranath Tagore have been published recently, ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (2020) and The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs (2021).


[1] Santosh Chandra Majumdar was the eldest son of Rabindranath Tagore’s friend Shrish Chandra Majumdar. After passing his entrance examination along with Rathindranath, he went to America and upon returning in 1910 joined the Brahmacharyashram in Santiniketan on a monthly salary of two hundred Rupees. He actively took part in teaching, sports arrangements and hospitality of the guests. He served both Tagore and his institution wholeheartedly till his death in October 1926.  Rabindranath received the news of Santosh’s untimely death after reaching Aden.

[2]Pupe or Pupu was the pet name of Nandini, the adopted daughter of Rathindranath.

[3]One of the houses in which the poet lived at Santiniketan.

[4]The name of this anthropologist was Christoph Von Furer Heimendorf. He stayed in Hyderabad and South India for a long time to carry out research on remote backward tribes. Later he became famous for it.  See Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Rabindrajiboni Vol.III, p. 293.

[5]The first volume consisted of selected letters written to his niece Indira Devi when he was wandering around the villages of Bengal and was titled “Chinnapatra”. The second set of letters was written from Santiniketan to a young girl named Ranu Adhikari.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review Tribute

Under the Shadow of Death: Memoirs of Tagore’s Last Days

To Commemorate Tagore’s 80th Death anniversary, we present a review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of memoirs around Tagore’s last days with a forward by Professor Fakrul Alam

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs

Translator/ Editor: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021

The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, selected, edited, translated, and put together from the original Bangla by Somdatta Mandal, hovers along a fine line between biography, autobiography and perhaps a bit of hagiography around the account of a life lived in the shadow of imminent death. Mandal draws on all these genres to create a rich chiaroscuro of effects, with a chorus of the memoirs of a few caregivers, mostly women, who were in close proximity to Tagore and served and took care of him in the last year of his life.

Criss-crossing between bouts of illness and creativity, the caregivers also doubled as scribes and notetakers, transcribing the precious words of the great poet. Together, they create an incredibly rich web of narratives, which have been very ably selected and translated by Professor Somdatta Mandal. The memoirs also convey a sense and flavour of the place, whether it is Santiniketan, Jorasanko, Kalimpong or Mongpu — the various places and haunts of Rabindranath in the twilight of his life. The interesting thing is that many of these ancillary memoirs were written by young people who later became famous as writers and artists, their talents often nurtured, encouraged and incubated by the greatly revered poet himself.

The titles of their respective memoirs attest to their unique writerly talents: ‘Nirbaan’ by Pratima Devi, representing a release and freedom from a painful state. Rani Chanda, the second section talks about the ‘alapchari’(Musical) Rabindranath and Gurudev, highlighting his sensitivity to and concern for others.  Mongpu-te Rabindranath and Swarger Kachakachi (Rabindranath at Mongpu and Close to Heaven) by Maitreyi Devi are deeply evocative pieces. Nirmalkumari’s “22nd Shravan” is perhaps given the most space by the editor/translator and shows his anxieties about the fate of the university built by him, a unique educational experiment very dear to his heart. Living in the shadow of the great man, it is as if each memoir and person measures up their life which gains in meaning and significance, as a result of the unique legacy bequeathed to them, with love and affection, by the poet.    

In reflecting and refracting, through the prism of their care and service, the closing year of Rabindranath’s life, the memoirs lay bare several facts. The bard was often a difficult patient, experiencing several crests and troughs as far as his moods — creative and otherwise — were concerned. Too intelligent and perceptive to avoid facts, he could see his imminent death, but did not want his caregivers to be morose and mournful. On them, fell the job of entertaining him, creating laughter and fun, in which he would participate when his health permitted him. He was less scared of death, he said, than of surgery advocated by his very eminent doctors like Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (later he Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1948-1962) and Dr Nilratan Sarkar.

That this book is a labour of love is evident from Professor Mandal’s careful selection and editing, as well as her meticulous and competent translation. She has presented the momentous and moving final months of Rabindranath Tagore’s eventful life up to the day of his death which witnessed an outpouring of grief from many quarters. It is the final months of his life which is transcribed and inscribed by his memorialists, among whom are Pratima Devi, his daughter-in-law and son Rathindranath’s wife; Rani Chanda, his secretary Anil Chanda’s wife and a writer herself; Maitreyi Devi, the well-known writer and a protégé and favourite of Tagore’s; Nirmalkumari Mahalanabis, whose exchanges with the kobi-guru (great poet) have been detailed in Kobi and Rani (translated by Professor Mandal in 2020) and Amita Thakur, his granddaughter.

The first selection Pratima Devi’s ‘Nirbaan’ (1942) demonstrates his faith in and affection for his conscientious daughter-in-law, who, along with Rani Chanda and others, become an embodiment of care and nurture. He is aware of being a difficult patient and this awareness, which shines through in many of his comments and pet peeves, not only redeems him, but makes him more human. Musing “fondly on the poet’s twilight moments” while punning on the Robi (Bangla for sun) in the poet’s name, Maitreyi Devi, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning novelist writes: “The almost setting sun…was no less pleasant than the glory and radiance of the afternoon sun” and even within the sickroom, the poet continued “playing” his tunes, along with the march of time.

In his sensitive and nuanced foreword, Professor Fakrul Alam points out the memorialists’ refusal to minimize or sentimentalize Gurudev’s illness. In fact, Rani (Nirmalakumari Mahalanobis) expresses her impatience and criticism of the happenings and the people around the poet in the last stages. Amita Thakur, Rabindranath’s granddaughter was a notable exponent of his songs in her time, and he would depend on her to note down the songs as they came to him. Her work is chosen, says Alam, “as a coda for her assemblage of extracts from the memoirs of the five devoted caregivers who were women who had served him selflessly for sustained periods.”

The literary and archival value of such a work is undeniable and its benefits for exploring literary culture is immense. Between its glimpses of a towering giant in the world of letters with a truly international perspective to its comments about Tagore’s closeness to women and his seeking women as caregivers, the collection is also a testament to Tagore’s faith in the selfless capacity of women.

The book and Rabindranath’s close relationship with his many caregivers and later, memoirists, sometimes created a family dynamic of some tension between his natal family and adopted one. At one point, Maitreyi Devi (called “Mongpobi” or “Mitra” by the poet) talks of the negative comments made about her by Indira Debi (Bibi), one of Tagore’s favourite nieces, daughter of Satyendranath Tagore and Jnadanandini Debi. Later however, Maitreyi Devi also mentions the kindness shown to her by Indira Debi when they are together in Santiniketan.

Like in Kobi and Rani, the memoirs of Rani Mahalanobis (called Prathama or first to differentiate her from Rani Chanda who was referred to as Dwitiya or second) show the many facets of the great man himself — his many moods from his mellow moods even when he was in extreme pain to his irascible mood to his playful and humorous moments. It is to the credit of the editor/translator that she has organised and arranged the material very skillfully to bring out his mercurial nature, his flashes of temper and his expectation that his caregivers would wear their responsibilities lightly.

Overtly committed to personal memory, life narratives and biographies occasionally come  close to hagiography. They also lay bare a  performativity inscribed in the very form, implicit in the relationship between the great man/ luminary and those who are satellites in his orbit. The many layers of feeling get reflected in a plurality of forms that are both sedimented and fluid in structure — comprising letters, diaries, poems, fragments. These innovative narrative structures are evolved to convey through an overlapping of various genres: non-fiction, poetry, memoir, autobiography, letters, etc. Extending well beyond any coherent theoretical coordinates to streamline its disparate forms, life narratives are as much constructed by an individual artist — subject as they are the product of her/his intersecting textures of historical, social, political, economic, and cultural contexts.

The socio-cultural context  is specifically that of the progressive environment of Santiniketan and Vishwa Bharati. We see how the ambience of cultural efflorescence and Brahmo liberal ideas helped shape these young women. Perhaps, because of the reformist cast of Brahmo womanhood or the holistic educational schemes fostered by Tagore, in his caregivers, we see the emergence of relatively independent or mobile women, cast in agentic roles of decision making. We see an extraordinary sense of  a tightly-knit community of caregivers whether in Pratima Devi and Maitreyi Devi during the harrowing journey back from Kalimpong to Calcutta when Tagore’s illness worsens, the encounters of Maitreyi Devi with British doctors in Kalimpong or the journey undertaken by Maitreyi from Mongpu along with her young daughter immediately after a landslide, when her husband, Manmohan Sen, undertakes  to get the landslide cleared.

With a vibrant assembly of many pictures and voices, the story emerges from a collage. Piecemeal in bits and pieces, like the oranges sent to Rabindranath by Maitreyi Devi from Mongpu. Each experience, like the fruit, is savoured slowly and with relish. The remaining fruit, both actually and figuratively/symbolically, is given to the students.

A life, even one as extraordinary as Rabindranath Tagore’s, unfolds in time, simultaneously, it also participates in eternity. Thus, even as his nearness and the promise of proximate greatness draws his mentees into his magical orbit, we see him worrying about his imminent death and the fate of Santiniketan. We have to also see the life of the women, details of which get inscribed in their memoirs. The demands placed upon them are often relegated to the margins as they form part of the enchanted circle around the ailing poet, who at times seems to assert his claim on their time, albeit often  in jest, sometimes in a semi-serious way, competing for their attention with their other affections and preoccupations. Their lives, they realise, are given significance and irradiated by his presence, endowed with value through the care they could extend to the great soul.  

Ultimately the collection testifies to the power of great literature and poetry. As the poet himself says:

“Of course, literature is based upon lies — from beginning to end. Whatever I have said, whatever I am saying, how much of that is true? I have done a lot of farming for 80 years. I cannot vouch that all the grains will be stored in the barn. Some will be eaten by rats, but even then, something would be left behind. I cannot say that with certainty, eras change, times change and along with that everything also changes. But I can say with certainty that my songs will last the longest. Especially Bengalis will have no other way except to sing my songs in grief, sorrow, joy and happiness. They will have to go on singing them for ages.”

Kumar Sri Jayantanath is aptly quoted in Appendix B of the memoirs: “There is nothing new to say about Rabindranath because whatever we had to say has already been said by him.” Therefore, we pay a tribute to the poet in the poet’s own words:

You had brought along with you

 Deathless soul

In your death you have

Donated that

You have donated that

In your death.”

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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