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Exactly 137 years ago from today on 20th September, 1878, accompanied by his ICS brother Satyendranath, Rabindranath, then aged 17, boarded the steamer ‘S.S. Poona’ at the port of Bombay. The destination was England. The purpose was to study there for a career either in the Indian Civil Service or in law. Today we travel such long distances by air and reach our destination within hours. We only leave and arrive; we do not get any opportunity to see things and people and places on our way and we have virtually nothing to say about our journey. In those times it took days by sea. In the present case it took about 20 days. The poet has given an interesting account of this journey in the first letter included in his first travelogue – Europe prabasir patra or the Letters from Europe. Unaccustomed to sea voyages as a modern reader I find it fascinating – reading it is a kind of a time-travel. It also gives the reader an opportunity to view the process which shaped the personality of Rabindranath.
The steamer left the port at about five in the afternoon and as the mainland receded the poet felt somewhat homesick. But little did he know that soon he was going to be afflicted by something more serious. When he saw the billowing sea from the shore it appeared so beautiful and romantic; but now on the ship he found it different, it made him sick. The sea was very rough that day. He could hardly walk on the deck; nor could he take any food. Out of the 8 days that took the steamer to reach Aden the poet had to remain bedridden in his dark, lonely and airless cabin for long 6 days because of sea-sickness. It left him ‘weak as a rat’. A sympathetic steward took good care of the poet and got handsome tips. At Aden the sea became calm; he enjoyed the lovely landscape in the early morning light. During his five days’ journey from Aden to Suez along the Red Sea he got the opportunity to mix with and observe his co-passengers. There was no shortage of ladies but the otherwise chivalrous gentlemen grumbled that none of them was young or handsome. Most of them were past their prime. One was lanky, another was like a perfect example of a straight line as defined in geometry – a line having ‘length without breadth’ and there was a lady whose lips were rough and thick, her face was full of marks and her teeth were long; another ate meals large enough for two adult males! The poet was amused and at the same time felt pity for these elderly ladies who took great pains to look younger and behaved like flirts yet miserably failed to win a male heart. The poet himself however kept away from them lest by doing something unmannerly he should annoy these dames who were very fastidious about manners.
Among the gentlemen passengers who became familiar and friendly there was one Bengali. He was a mixture of a mature adult and a simple child - he had a funny habit of calling others not by the names their parents had given them but by those he improvised. ‘Avatar’ was the name he gave to our poet – nobody knew why. Mr. Gregory became ‘Gadgadi’ and another person became ‘Rohitmatsa’ (Indian carp), because his neck was short. At the dinner table his favourite story was about two invitees to a feast – one advised the other who was eating too much, ‘the meal is free for sure, but mind it the belly is yours’. There was one Mr. T who was a queer character. He was out and out a ‘philosopher’. In conversation he never used the colloquial language and he never talked but always delivered lectures. One night in a small gathering on the deck someone had remarked, ‘How wonderful are these stars!’ Mr. Philosopher was there and he found out a strange similarity between the stars and human life and started his lecture. All became dumb and sat there dazed. Their chatting came to an end, their music stopped! After some time some began to yawn, some began to doze and then the assembly dispersed. What a spoilsport!
Then there was a perfect prototype of a John Bull among the passengers. His body was huge like a palm tree, his face was like that of a bull dog and his eyes were dead as those of a dead fish. His moustache was like broom sticks and his hair stood out on his head like porcupine needles. Unfortunately there are people who may not be bad but their very appearance makes them repulsive. So was this man to the poet. Every morning he used to revile the servants of the ship in all the languages he knew – English, French and Hindusthani. He was never seen to smile. He mixed with nobody and rarely came out of his cabin. Lastly, there was ‘B’ who was a Eurasian and at the dinner used to sit beside the poet. Like a pure Englishman he knew how to sing and whistle and to stand with his legs apart and putting both his hands in his trouser pockets. He used to talk with the poet in a patronizing tone. Once very gravely he told, ‘Young man, you are going to Oxford? It’s a good university.’ As if Oxford badly needed his certificate! He also gave a good certificate to the book the poet was reading on the ship – Trench’s Proverbs and Their Lessons.
From this we may hazard the guess that the initial plan was to admit the poet in Oxford University and that he was not neglecting to polish his English on his way to the land where that language is spoken. We shall leave him here and rejoin him on his journey in our next blog.
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