“O Boatman, take me to the other bank,
Where my Beloved waits
O Gardener, do not pluck the roses
in this Garden
This is the Garden of my Heart where blood
mingles with roses”
I just made up these lines. But from my perspective, they could very easily have been written by Rabindranath Tagore. Such woolly-headed, maudlin, sentimental non-poetry is what I have for years associated with the Tagore we have been fed on. At least in translation, the Bard of Bengal appears superficial, fatuous and plain boring. My erudite Bengali bhadralok friends have been angry with me for expressing these opinions. But their best response was always a weak one — “Tagore suffered in translation.”
Having said all these uncharitable things about the bearded Gurudev of Shantiniketan, let me retract a bit. The fact is that in much of his stately prose, unusual fiction and intriguing plays, Tagore demonstrates a streak of universal humanism that is both grand and engaging. It is a distinct voice in the midst of all the provincialism and parochialism that we Indians are familiar with.
Gora dealt with identity issues many decades ago. These very same identity issues are now getting the attention they deserve. If human beings spent on constructive activities (building a house could be considered a constructive activity!) as much time as they did talking about, arguing about, writing about their identities, we might make progress as humans, instead of getting trapped in the quagmire of irredeemable conflicts. Indian, American, White, Christian, African, Arab, Ukrainian, Russian, Han, Tibetan, Jewish, Muslim, Wahabi, Orthodox, Hindu, Dalit, Buddhist, Sinhala, Tamil, Pashtun, Kurdish, Alawite, Maronite — all of these have over the years gotten set in stone. We are told that we cannot escape from them and neither can our adversaries. In the tortured character of Gora, we are forced to confront the fact that identities are fluid and in the long run, not worth talking about too much, let alone fighting for. Time spent building a house is definitely and emphatically more worthwhile!
Because of the syrupy movie that it was turned into, Kabuliwala has acquired a negative image with many of us. But if one goes back and reads the story, what strikes you is the matter-of-fact narrative, the refusal to attempt to draw out a grand theme from simple everyday occurrences, and the simple, tender relationship between two fathers and their daughters. The intriguing thing is that Tagore keeps the prose style sparse and conversational. He is asking his readers to think about similar, seemingly unimportant things that happen to each of us and is suggesting that a germ of universal humanism exists in the middle of the ordinariness of our day-to-day living. No big words, no complex explanations. It is just there if we are willing to look at it. And very gently, but with effortless persuasion, he gets us to make the attempt to look at it.
For some years now, I have been veering away from my hyper-critical views on Tagore’s poetry, towards a gentler and more thoughtful appreciation of the man’s genius. The fact that he took up painting at the age of 60 and then went on to demonstrate such extraordinary facility with his new-found art form, remains one of the most enigmatic stories in the history of the neuroscience of genius. It ranks with Ramanujan’s way with numbers. In the decades to come, as scientists unlock the chemical pathways and transmissions of our neurons, doubtless they will come up with a material explanation for these flashes of genius. Like all such explanations, more questions will be raised than will be answered.
And then, as if to validate my softer views on Tagore, I recently came across a mention of Tagore in Saul Friedlander’s book Nazi Germany and the Jews. The date is 15 July 1942. The place is the Warsaw Ghetto. Janusz Korczak, also known as Dr Henryk Goldszmit, is the person in charge of the ghetto orphanage. I quote Friedlander: “Korczak invited the ghetto’s who’s who to a performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s Post Office, staged and enacted by the staff and children of his orphanage. Korczak was a widely known educator and writer — mainly of highly prized children’s books; for three decades he had been the director of the wJewish orphanage in Warsaw. After the establishment of the ghetto, the ‘old doctor’ as he was affectionately nicknamed, had to move his 200 small charges within the walls. The play, the story of a sick boy confined to his dark room in a hut, expressed the boy’s yearning to wander among trees and flowers, to hear the birds singing. In the play, a supernatural being enables Amal (the hero’s name) to walk an invisible path to the paradise he dreamed about.”
Twenty-one days later, on 5 August 1942, the Nazis “deported” all the orphans to Treblinka where they were killed. As they left the ghetto, Korczak “walked at the head of the column of children marching to their death”. It makes one shiver to remember that about a-million-and-a-half Jewish children under the age of 14 were killed by the Nazis during the Shoah. It is equally fascinating to note the fact that our own Guru of universal humanism, provided some solace to 200 orphans in the Warsaw ghetto, just weeks before they died in the depths of the universal anti-humanism of the Nazis. The little Bengali boy, who wanted to hear the singing of birds, provided the doomed children with an illusion that they could cling on to, a child they could identify with. I quote Korczak, who wrote in his diary, “Perhaps illusions would be a good subject for the Wednesday dormitory talk, illusions and their role in the life of mankind.”
The performance of a magical Tagore play in the crowded Warsaw ghetto has to remain a unique affirmation of the human spirit even in the depths of the darkest moment in human history. Salaam Robi Babu!
(The author is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur)