Saturday, September 29, 2007

The laughing broom

Thou Hast Made Me Endless- Part VII

From RAJAT DAS GUPTA, Calcutta

[The following poem is the preamble of the book Prahasini (Satirist) in Bengali by the Rabindranath Tagore written in 1939, two years before his death at the age of 80. While the poet endowed us with his superb literature, music and philosophical thoughts, albeit being a personality of highest dignity, he could easily come down to the level of lesser mortals around him and amuse them with the sparks of his brilliant wits whenever occasion would arise. The Poet was a guest of Mrs. Maitrayee Devi at Mangpu (a hill station near Darjeeling) a few times towards the end of his life. She collected all the wonderful dialogues of the poet as she could in her book ‘Mangpute Rabindranath’ (Rabindranath in Mangpu) translated by herself from the original Bengali into English with the title ‘Tagore by Fireside’. As the book records, the Poet was amazingly mobile between the highest aesthetic/philosophical thoughts and the lighter humor.]

The laughing broom of the comet at times
Sweeps fun down the Universe to our climes
Speeding past the bewildered Sun’s dominion
With flashes of wit to lose into oblivion
Takes leave the Universal jester.
Along my life’s orbit, I know not why
The crazy comets at times do pass by.
Rushing in the void the tail of rigmarole
With momentary frolic without a goal
Shaking up the hood of the somber.
At times the world relaxes
Either in hilarity or amuses
Glitters laughter brilliant,
Yet not lasting, in an instant
Blots out its trail;
The night in meditation on its dark seat
Scatters meteors in its freakish beat
Countless sparks of wit it does fling
That booty beyond reckoning –
Discharges in a few hours’ frail.
In this Universe there are matters crazy
Creator’s amused affection thereon I do fancy,
Mirth and frolic, God’s gift so
Inscribed in my dignity do go;
At heart I know, it is precious;
So much senile I shall be never
To call caddish fun and laughter;
If so the old will grunt
With God I’ll merrily share its brunt;
Grant it forthwith and not turn serious.

* * * * * * * * * * ** *** *** * ** * ** ** * ** * *

Poem from the book ‘Khapchara’ (Crazy) written to the Poet’s friend Rajsekhar Bose in 1937.
[Translator’s note: Rajsekhar Bose of Tagore’s time is still popular among the Bengali literati for his spoof literature which he wrote under the nickname Parasuram (a legendary sage of ancient India, notorious for his bad temper). The poet here upholds nonsense as a valuable part of human life as a design of God. In Hindu mythology Brahma is considered as the God of Creation, having four faces. In other words, man is of myriad character encompassing humor and frolic. In this poem the Poet gives a witty explanation of the four faces of Brahma.]

If you find this senile
Shedding his pretensions awhile-
Naughty seems to be,
Blabs successfully,
Notice his childish fruition
And lapses in dedication
Towards Vedas (*), not solemn (* 4000 year old scripture)
Like the Atlantic Ocean,
His words
Tend to farce;
Brain crazy,
Mind borders lunacy,
And so you condemn
His education as vain –
Why the Creator, I’ll ask
Has four faces, for what task?
One for philosophy
To preach homily;
The other for Veda accent,
That too well meant;
The third is for poetry profuse
Our mind in emotion to muse;
Then, the last one you must know –
Is the preserve for “Ho! Ho!”. (=laughter)
Wild folly all fences to overflow;
At its push
In my brain all nonsense ambush,
And spiral up to rigmarole
Without a goal.
A disciple of that four faced
I happen to be; so has been said;
However much that may amuse you
Support documents, not a few;
Creation plays my fancy, you may see
Yet, I tilt for ramble with no less glee.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

RAJAT DAS GUPTA: Calcutta: e-mail:
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941 AD) the Nobel Laureate of 1913 was introduced to the West primarily through the collection of English translation of some of his poems/songs captioned as ‘Gitanjali’ (=Offering of Songs).More translations of his works followed by the poet himself and others after he had won the Nobel, including poems/songs, dramas, short stories etc. However, such efforts were sporadic and sluggish, mostly on individual initiative, which still remain so.As a result, a vast volume of the poet’s works remains un-translated while, it appears, it is an impossible proposition to translate even a substantial part of the poet’s total works to permit those, not privileged by the knowledge of Bengali language, a reasonably broad view of his myriad creations where unfathomable perceptional depth of top grade aesthetics runs through, literally true to his song “Thou hast made me endless / Such is Thy pleasure”.Notwithstanding this, an upsurge of Tagore translation took place in the last decade of the twentieth century by virtue of a good number of eminent poets/translators e.g.William Radice, Joe Winter, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, to name a few, all of whom left their valuable contribution to this oeuvre and my book THE ECLIPSED SUN is a modest addition to this. I have put stress on a few aspects of the poet’s works, particularly those in his twilight years, which seemed to me quite inadequately covered so far. The followings are presented mostly based on this book.

Tagore the wag:
Preamble: While Tagore was an embodiment of supreme dignity, spirituality and aesthetics, his mobility between that height and the mundane, including very refined practical jokes, was indeed amazing. I am tempted to refer here quite elaborately to Maitrayee Devi’s ‘Tagore By Fireside’ (a translation by herself of her original book in Bengali ‘Mangpute Rabindranath’ i.e.’Rabindranath at Mangpu’, a hill station near Darjeeling which was the workplace of her husband) based on her diary she maintained while Tagore was her guest intermittently between 1938 and 1940. Her book is a unique literature of its kind. In no other writing one gets the poet so closely as in this book, through the eyes of Maitrayee Devi. The undernoted incidents/quotes from this book will hopefully be found relevant to the following two poems.
There was no dearth of scandal mongers against Tagore which disturbed very much Maitrayee, a great devotee of the Poet, whenever she would hear all these. Once, when the Poet was in Mangpu, she heard the scandal that the poet must have champagne every evening (the fact is, the Poet was a teetotaler and also that wine & alcohol are taboos even now among the hoi polloi in India). Overcoming her inhibition one day, she reported the Poet about this baseless scandal. The Poet answered, “Ah, no less than champagne! But even after hearing all these, I find no improvement in your hospitality!” Maitrayee’s reply was- “Hell!”
Another such scandal was that the Poet never allowed those women to come near him who were not beautiful. Having this report from Maitrayee, the Poet said, “But those who speak thus, must not have seen you!’. Indignant Maitrayee said, “Such insults on appearance and age is intolerable!’. The Poet said, “But I never told you anything about your age! (It seems, on some earlier occasion he did.) I know well that you can’t be older than 45!” (At that time Maitrayee was only 25 years old). Now, thus he mollified the still indignant Maitrayee – “But why are you still cross? Just think how nice an arrangement it would have been had I been really so (i.e. averse to women not beautiful). Santiniketan would have been free of the womenfolk there!” (Only Tagore could be intrepid enough to dismiss all of them as ‘not beautiful’!)
Once again in Mangpu, Tagore conspired with a few of his associates to play a practical joke on a female relative of Maitrayee, whom all of them (including Tagore) addressed as Mashi (which in Bengali is the address for one’s mother’s sisters, but may be applied to any woman around their age. For jest it is applied to much younger girls also, as in this case). Mashi was terribly afraid of insects which were then abundant while it was monsoon time. In the morning the poet predicted the girl that it would be a bad day for her, pretending that it was his astrological reading. On persistence of the girl for more details of the impending mishap, the Poet replied that it might be of any kind which could not be precisely foreseen. Then, in the words of Maitrayee Devi:]

“Early in the evening, at about dinner-time, I was waiting to give the Poet some medicine, when I suddenly heard a piercing shriek and a loud crash of falling crockery. I ran into the dining room to find Mashi standing on a chair, thoroughly distraught, with the dining table in complete disorder, while the others, whom the Poet used to call his three lords, were eating a huge beetle with much gusto. Then it came out that the beetle was made of chocolate. The great lord had ordered it from a confectioner’s in Darjeeling, and then by previous unanimous agreement it was placed ready on Mashi’s plate neatly covered with a serviette. I came back to the Poet’s room and found him laughing to himself to his heart’s content.
‘Mashi, didn’t I predict that the day would end badly for you?’
‘Amazing! You were also in this conspiracy?’
‘Really, I am also in it, am I? That is too bad, it really has gone too far – please do not release the news to the Associated Press, for the Poet Emperor (The poet is referred in India as the Poet-Emperor, The World Poet, The Great Poet etc.) would lose his prestige altogether, specially in our Guru-ridden country! Had I sat on a high pedestal, behaving like a proper preceptor and now and then showered sermons from the high, who would have been the loser? Those who fix themselves on the top do not realize how much they lose.’
Words, that are limited by fixed meanings, seem inadequate to express how all the fine and sensitive touches of his personality revealed themselves to us, how we found him at once detached and absorbed. Even when absorbed in deep thought, engrossed in serious writing, he would return to us in a moment. He was interested in our smallest pleasures and pains, our trivial problems of our everyday life, watching over us with affection and anxiety. He did not stand like an onlooker on the bank, but came right into the middle of our life stream and felt its flow. Yet, in a moment, he would be off on a voyage to some far away region. At one moment he would talk on ordinary topics and regale everyone with humorous conversation, but the next moment he would relapse into a silence that would change the whole aspect of his personality, as if a door had closed, leaving us outside it, to gaze into a mystery we could never aspire to reach. Sometimes, in moments like this, we have felt, at least I have felt, that I should not speak at all, even if there should be something urgent to say. The tranquility that emanated from him at such times cannot be transmitted to my readers through the medium of language. Sometimes he would sit for hours without moving a hair, a hush would descend over the trees, over the dark masses of bushes; at such times all noise, even the voices inside the house, would disappear from consciousness, something would reach out to me from that absolute stillness. I longed to sit at the feet of my Guru in those tranquil hours, but it was not an easy thing at the beginning; for ordinary persons like us to be able to sit in perfect stillness for a while needs training. One’s back would start itching, or toe would go to slip, something or other would tickle somewhere, making it absolutely necessary to change position. In the beginning, I was amazed to see him sit in the same position for hours, forgetting the existence of a body. Sometimes in the early hours of dawn, I have found him sitting thus, quite unmindful of the centipedes that were crawling up and down his arm. And then I would be confronted with a problem, not knowing whether to brush them away or leave them undisturbed. I find it impossible to express not only what he was, but also how I saw him. I can take down a little of his conversation, but how I can explain that eloquence of his silence, which was a deeper expression of his personality, as I felt sitting there in an ineffable companionship, filled with a glow of well-being that baffles all description?”

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