Traveller Rabindranath – 1 by Kumud Biswas SignUp

Traveller Rabindranath – 1
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I have a home everywhere;
my mission is to seek out that home.
My native land is in every country
and I shall seek it out
with all my heart.
Whenever I visit an alien land
I feel as if
I have a shelter there,
I will have only to find out the entrance.
In every home
live my near and dear ones
and it is my task to go on searching
till I find them out.

This is the opening stanza of poem 14 of the collection Utsarga (Dedication) by Rabindranath Tagore. It is not merely a poetic effusion of an imaginative mind; it also gives us a glimpse of an important aspect of the poet’s character. He was restless by nature and could hardly stay at one place for a long stretch of time. He loved to travel. And he was destined to be a widely travelled man. He also wrote about his travels and became the author of perhaps the largest number of travelogues. Unfortunately today they appear to be his least read books. Yet in this genre they are the best in Bengali literature and can compare with great travelogues of world literature. We travel for various purposes - for profit and pleasure or for adventure and satisfaction of one’s curiosity. But our poet wanted to travel for something more as the above quoted poem suggests. Here we propose to take a tour of his travel stories, because the cultivation of his ideal seems to be the crying need of the hour - today’s world is riven by violent clashes and conflicts. It needs to be noted that this poem was published in 1901, long 12 years before he received the Nobel Prize in 1913. Thus he had developed this outlook before he became world famous. And it was not an intuition but a lesson he had learnt through experience.

In his infancy Rabindranath was looked after by a wet nurse. And soon after weaning he was placed under the charge of male servants of the family. They kept him in their quarters like a prisoner, admonishing not to cross the boundaries of the territory they marked out for him. This generated in him a strong curiosity and desire to see and explore the outside world. The opportunity to satisfy this desire came for the first time in his life when the entire Tagore family had to temporarily remove to a suburban garden house on the banks of the Ganges to escape the epidemic of plague that had broken out in the city of Calcutta. His experience was however frustrating because on a flimsy ground he was not allowed to accompany his elders to explore the countryside. The poet could not forget this painful experience till the last day of his life.

After his Upanayan or initiation which every Brahmin male has to undergo at adolescence his father took him on a tour to the Himalayas. At that time he was only 11. On their way they visited Santiniketan at Bolpur where the poet was to spend the latter half of his life and set up a novel kind of university, his Visvabharati or World University and Sriniketan, an institution to conduct practical studies and experiments in rural reconstruction. This time his experience was different. His father did not ignore him as a mere child but indulgently treated him as a person, taught him discipline yet gave him full freedom to roam about and gave certain responsibilities to inculcate in him a sense of responsibility from his very childhood. He gave his son two jobs to do – one was to wind his gold watch every day and manage a small purse and keep accounts of small amounts spent out of it. The son did these jobs with so much zeal that within a few days the watch had to be sent to Calcutta for repairs and after whatever amount was spent the accounts almost always showed surplus. The father did not rebuke his over-zealot son. On the contrary he wanted to make him his treasurer because of his efficiency in financial matters! At Bolpur he used to explore the river bed of Khoai, collect pebbles and sitting under the shades of trees write poems. At Amritsar he used to accompany his father to visit the Golden temple and participate in bhajan singing. At Bakrota in the Dalhousie hills he had to learn Sanskrit and English languages by studying the Sanskrit grammar, reciting and translating his father’s favourite slokas from the Upanishads and the Vedas and reading English story books. After sunset he used to sit with his father in the garden under the starry skies and learnt from him the rudiments of astronomy which ultimately became his lifelong passion. Rest of the daytime he roamed freely in the pine forests on the slopes of the hills and enjoyed his new-found freedom and the beauties of nature to his heart’s content.

The poet recounted the happy memories of this tour 40 years later in a short chapter of his Jivansmriti or Reminiscences published in 1912. But long before this in 1881 he had already published his first full-fledged travelogue. In 1878, exactly six years after his Himalayan tour, when he was seventeen, at the initiative of his second elder brother, the first native ICS, he was sent to England for studies. The intention of his guardians was to prepare him for a career either in the ICS or in law. As a preparation for this visit Rabindranath had to live with an anglicized Marathi family for some time to learn spoken English and English manners and customs. He also used the huge collection in his ICS brother’s library to get acquainted with the western literature.

In England he first stayed for a short while with his second elder brother’s family at Brighton where he was admitted in a public school. As this would not serve the purpose for which he was sent to England he was shifted to London and was ultimately admitted in the University of London. He stayed with a middle class English family as paying guest. From there he started to send long letters to his relatives and the editor of the family magazine Bharati in which they were serially published with the critical comments of the editor. The poet’s eldest brother himself was the editor. Together with the editorial comments 13 of those letters were published in 1881 as his first travelogue – Europe prabasir patra or Letters from Europe. It is fascinating for many reasons. It is written in brilliant prose using plain colloquial language for the first time in Bengali literature. And it is full of humour. It is almost difficult to believe that it was written by a teenager! With the passage of time the prose style of Rabindranath was to shed this prosaic character and become increasingly poetic. I particularly like this travelogue most and shall talk about it in my next blog.

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Comments on this Blog

Comment Thanks Mr. Biswas for this enlightening blog as, I am sorry to say this, my knowledge about Tagore is sketchy. I have read him off and on but have forgotten most of what I read. Looking forward to your next blog.

02/01/2015 03:40 AM

Comment Thanks a lot Mr. Ashby for reading and commenting, but you seem to have missed my argument. Please follow me to see how.

01/30/2015 05:41 AM

Comment Travel is in essence the pursuit of novelty; and the travelogue is a record of this. The tourist industry is built on the insatiable appetite for novelty through travel. However, while the tourist is content with simple reflex expressions of his awe and delight at sights and sounds, the travel writer expands this in descriptive terms to communicate with readers; and does so today despite the pervasive medium of photography and film. Travel writing does have a special power of endearing one to the place; we are moved (if we are) by what is described in terms of the author's feelings expressed. For example, if ever I had to travel to the Cyprus or the Greek islands, it would be to relive the marvellous descriptions of Lawrence Durrell as set out in his travel books, such as 'Bitter Lemons'. In other words, I would be in love with the place and indistinguishably with Mr Durrell as an author - because Mr Durrell so described it in terms that affected me. Being in love makes an experience immortal, and it is this that a travelogue is surely all about achieving. If I visit a place and have no travelogue experience of it, then the novelty of the place dies within a couple of days, and I find that the basic structure of life is the same, rendering the characters of the place colourless. In fact, one quickly becomes aware of being perceived by the locals solely as a potential source of income wherever one goes. The locals have little or no appreciation of sights and sounds since to them they lack novelty and are part of the everyday scene in which they are obliged to pursue a living.

01/28/2015 21:07 PM

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